Signs and Symbols - An extract from Chapter 8 (Abadeh, Iran)

Late in the morning, we set out on the road running away from Esfahan. The plan was to drive throughout the day, headed south to the ruins of Persepolis. Before dusk, we would set camp in the site’s parking lot. It was a transitory day, which we hoped to see through without effort – for once, leaving our minds free to settle into the next day.

Persepolis was a prized catch – I had tasted its sound numerous times when reciting the journey’s itinerary to those who chose - or were forced - to hear me dream aloud. Like the hiss of a snake, the last syllable is an onomatopoeia of the Orient, intoxicating even the most exacting cynics with a pinch of knowledgeability. Adults, after all, are concerned with ‘matters of consequence’.

And Persepolis had certainly been a place of consequence. Darius I, widely known as Darius the Great, had made the city his magnum opus in the fifth century B.C. Almost two centuries later, Alexander III of Macedon, who was also a bearer of the Great denomination, ended the Achaemenid Empire by burning and looting Persepolis. An act of spite - uncommon in Alexander’s brief but momentous life - was arguably a revenge against the Persians for having consigned Athens to a similar fate almost a century earlier.

In the 1970s, Mohammad Reza Shah celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian Empire by staging one of history’s most extravagant parties in the same city that had witnessed its demise. Luxuries abounded, as sixty heads of state, queens, kings and an Ethiopian emperor were hosted in a camp built over a yearlong period by French architects, interior decorators and couturiers out of kilometres of silk. Fifty thousand songbirds were dispatched from Europe - only to die a few days later muffled by temperatures they could not bear. For three days, the guests feasted on foie gras, crayfish mousse and Champagne sorbet. A recipe for disaster - the lingering list of extravaganzas defining this ill-conceived party may in fact amuse the reader’s imagination, but is unlikely to have been reviewed with equal lightness by Iranians at large. When seeking the spark that fomented the break between the Shah and Iranians, leading to the former’s downfall in 1979, one can in fact begin by enquiring about the outcries of the uninvited to a party in Persepolis.

At midday, these contemplations ended abruptly as the engine began an unannounced crescendo of metallic thumps – soon accompanied by the chassis’ own tremors – and finally resolved by a piercing thump. Lifelessly the car slid on the gravel bordering the road, heading towards an inevitable halt; a gesture I quickly identified as hostile to the absent-mindedness scheduled for the day.

Time after time, I had kept the fear of this moment at bay. I had skimmed through an outdated manual for mechanics; I had compulsively checked the oils - almost every day - and, when driving, I would hush the radio to seek comfort in the steady sounds of the engine.

Within minutes of theorizing, our mechanical expertise was exhausted. All we were left with were vacant stares. We could not escape the realization that as a team composed by two economists and a linguist, our chances of identifying the failure were scarce, and even scarcer those of fixing it. Theory has a lamentable habit to tactlessly clash with practice.

We discovered to have stopped at the entrance of a town. A perfect midway point between our origin and destination. A place with the name of Abadeh; either overlooked or deemed unremarkable by our guidebooks.

Bystanders from a roadside restaurant catering to truck drivers had gathered in ferment. Seniority ranked their distances from us; younger men circled closer while older ones maintained their nonchalance from afar. All men, each one seemed to be stating a theory on the cause of our breakdown. One could see the enthusiasm in their gesticulations; maybe the idea that we would spend some time together excited them. Aware of my audience, I nervously repeated a script – turn the key, pump the accelerator and hope that the electric whines of the starter engine awake a grumble of mechanical power.

A young man from the crowd approached us. He sneaked around the car, theatrically tilting his head to bring his ear closer to the car’s body, looking for a diagnosis - as if a doctor with a patient.

Many times, I had observed or taken part in scenes of men gathering around a breakdown. A virile intent to intervene is usually displayed by the methodical unlocking of a car’s bonnet. A set of undaring observations on car batteries and other common maladies ensues. At this point, the stain of further actions is generally deemed unnecessary - enough self-aggrandizement has been achieved. It is a game with favourable odds – tempting but brief.

I jumped off the seat to follow the beckoning sign of the young man. He was kneeling by the rear wheels of the car, pointing at the fuel tank. With gestures, and presumably verbally, he made me understand that I should kneel next to him to listen. There was a symptom - a prolonged but fading electrical fizz. The problem had been identified – a beginner’s mistake – we had put petrol in a car that runs on diesel.

Having nudged my cynicism off guard, the young man was now in control. After a brief moment of confabulations amongst those present, I was shuttled onto the back of a motorbike in what I hoped was a hunt for the cure. There were mechanics everywhere; each specialized in a different line of business. The young man was an apprentice in one of the many. His name was Amir and, like us, he was in his early twenties.

We towed the car’s corpse to Amir’s garage and spent the afternoon waiting for a pump to drain the fuel tank through a straw. Amir added a degree of gravity to his role by wearing a high visibility vest - hiding the reindeers swarming his short-sleeved Christmas jumper. A stylized tattoo of a heart pierced by an arrow on occasion peeked from the left sleeve. Sitting on two large oil canisters, we observed each other from the opposite sides of the garage. I fantasized about a girl for whom I would get such a tattoo. Amir was probably trying to understand how we had made it that far.

We took turns to wonder around the truck carcasses and oil stains, escaping the sweet scent of petrol - and the few locals who paid us visit. I presumed that most were soon disappointed by their inability to communicate with us, or by our inability to communicate with them. A father brought his child, proudly pushing him towards us. The child knew a few words of English – he spoke shyly and favoured “yes” and “no” replies. He was an oddity under a regime that bans English language classes in primary schools.

By the time darkness started hiding the contours of our surroundings, the car had been emptied and refilled. As the motor rumbled back to life, for a brief moment we all glanced around searching for each other’s’ eyes - toasting to shared relief.

A thought though kept my solace in check. What if the impure fuel had seeped into the motor - sowing the seeds for a future breakdown? I could not discharge myself from the tiring role as the team’s risk manager: a nickname my fellow travellers used to describe an enduring pessimism rather than a useful clairvoyance.

Boussole

We followed Amir to the back of the garage. A glass pane demarcated a small office littered in receipts and half-opened cardboard boxes. He could not hide a smile. A smile both too mischievous and congenial to entail that the formal gathering was occurring simply for us to settle the payment for his service. Amir checked that no one from outside was watching. He then stood on a stool and lifted a bottle hidden atop of a shelf. He passed it on to Ankur, nodding as if to reassure him. We were to celebrate the victory through signs - words could not do it.

In the early 1930s, Robert Byron had also stopped in Abadeh on his way to Persepolis. In Road to Oxiana, he briefly describes it as a “favoured village” whose “inhabitants are prosperous.” More interestingly, while we all felt satisfied with the transgressive pleasure of a single sip from Amir’s bottle, Byron and his friends lawfully prided themselves with having “drunk a bottle apiece”. Needless to say, almost a century had gone by.

Amir invited us to spend the night at his place. Releasing me from hesitation, Ankur excitedly jumped on the backseat of our host’s motorbike. Caspar and I drove behind. Amir stopped to buy a prodigious bag of raw meat, not accepting a dime from us. We then left the asphalted road and followed a dirt track towards a lonesome light flickering in the distance.

GAB


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