Back to Gol-e-Sara campsite and it’s off east again to Meshed in the north-east of Iran, and like Turkey, Iran drives on the right. The road near Teheran is good but further away from the capital, parts of it are just dirt road where the wheels of thousands of heavy vehicles have created wavy bumps 6-8 inches apart. With this type of surface, there is an optimum (least uncomfortable) speed at which to travel – about 40 mph. Slower than this and one is down in the depressions while faster means too much time in the air. The vibration from skimming the tops of bumps causes a continual squeaking from the bodywork, slightly reduced by our luggage in the back. Dust from lorries does not help but progress is steady. I am driving and about 90 kilometres from Teheran, we come to a little town called Garmsar – unknown then but slightly better known now as the birthplace of sixth Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. It is Saturday afternoon, things seem busy so I am in no hurry, to the annoyance of several drivers who honk and gesticulate as they overtake. A big modern coach facing us is parked on the right hand side of the road so that the passenger door opens out into the middle of the road. Coasting at about 20 miles an hour, I move out to the centre of the road to give it a wide berth.
Next bit is the start of a nightmare which lasts for 3 days. A small boy dashes out of the coach straight into my path and there is nothing I can do to avoid hitting him. He is looking straight ahead and on impact, bounces off the front of the Land Rover rolling over a couple of times and then lies very still. His elbow breaks an orange indicator lamp cover which rolls on the ground in his direction after he has hit the ground. Instinctively, I slam on the brakes making the Land Rover skid to a halt. In a very shaky voice, my friends hear me say “Oh no”. I get out of the Land Rover to try and have a look at the boy thinking maybe I can use some of the first aid learned from the Scouts. Before I can do anything people descend on him putting his limp body into a car which disappears quickly. His relatives including his grandfather are walking around in circles crying their eyes out. A policeman turns up and bricks are put in front and behind the tyres so the Land Rover cannot be moved. For some strange reason, Simon gets into the driving seat then gets out again, and it is chaos. Then the policeman thinks Simon is the driver and I have to tell him that it was me. No one takes any notice of me but to say I feel sick, barely begins to describe how low I feel.
Eventually, we all turn up at the police station and by now it is evening. My passport is given to the police and my friends are told to turn up next morning as I will be going to court. I am allowed to sleep in a spare room rather than a cell and someone brings me some food. I cannot sleep very well but in this room I find an American paperback novel which I try to read but I am not in the mood. My friends disappear, no one speaks a word of English and I do not get much sleep.
Late that night, I hear some strange haunting singing just outside my cell – it seems like a group of about six men. I can still remember the tune after more than forty years and there is a haunting chorus in the song with a stamping of feet to each bar of the music. There are metal grids on the high windows so I cannot have a look – I have a feeling that the song is for my benefit – are they putting a curse on me? I have no idea what the song is about.
Early next morning I am given breakfast of a cup of tea and chapatti and find that I can wander around the inside of the station more or less as I like. No point in trying to be a fugitive with no passport, no money and since I will be going to court at 12 noon, why should they worry? In a courtyard at the back, I see the ceremony for breaking the flag with the policemen smartly dressed and lined up in a row. As the lanyard is pulled with the words “shahanshah” king of kings, the policemen all salute and snap to attention with their feet coming together with a loud report. Just like the “breaking the flag” ceremony we did in the Scouts at the start of every meeting.
My friends turn up, having spent an uncomfortable night camped on the outside of town and we all troop off to the local courthouse.
Eight people are there trying to help with the case and most of them speak good English. The proceedings start with the coach driver. It is pointed out that had he parked correctly with the passenger door opening towards the pavement rather than the middle of the road, the accident would not have happened. He protests and waves his arms about but ends up with a heavy fine, giving me a dirty look when the verdict is announced.
The proceedings then turn to me and my situation is explained. I have injured a small boy and one of his relatives has made a statement to this effect to the police. The fact that it is an accident is not the point. Nor is the fact that I was driving more slowly than most local drivers. Under Muslim law, I cannot be released until the boy has recovered and compensation has been paid to the family. The boy is in a hospital in Teheran. My friends have 24 hours to get a letter from a doctor saying the boy is fit to leave hospital and sort out the compensation with the family. Failing this, I will be under arrest rather than just in custody. Next court hearing is set for 12 noon the following day.
The court mentions that relations between Iran and the UK are friendly and they hope it can all be sorted out amicably.
Back to the police station for me while my friends disappear off to Teheran. Not much to do in the afternoon so I try to read a bit more of the paperback, but the life inside the police station is more interesting. The police station has a chief officer who has a smart dark blue uniform. One time when he is sitting down on the top of a desk, the lining of the flap at the back of his jacket turns over showing GENUINE WEST OF ENGLAND CLOTH. This lifts my spirits enormously. Another spiritual uplift occurs in the loo of all places, where the pan is again of the squat down type with the white sanitary ware showing the Ideal crest – The Potteries have been doing their bit for the Balance of Payments.
With all the usual weekend police activity going on, there seems to be one guy who is really in charge. Looking like a plain clothes detective in dress down mode, everybody defers to him including the smartly dressed station chief. He has not shaved for several days and wears a rather dirty old brown woollen overcoat which would do any flasher proud – he is not interested in impressing anyone with his dress. All this suggesting he is from the Shah’s dreaded secret police SAVAK.
Sunday Night Drama
The evening proves to be quite memorable. I am in a long room near the station entrance where I sit with a couple of other policemen and one of their civilian friends. This room has a tall paraffin heater whereas the room I slept in is not heated. I cannot speak any Farsi while my companions have no English but by means of signs, the universal rubbing of the thumbs and fingers together, plus the word “pul” and the letters MANI written on a scrap of paper, get the message across. I empty my pockets which have 3 coins totalling a few Rials which is pence and no use even to buy a cup of tea. The two men shrug their shoulders and get a small aluminium teapot which they fill with water putting it on top of the paraffin heater to make some tea. This takes about 10 minutes with the liquid poured into a small straight-sided glass not much bigger than an egg cup. A small white saucer holding two lumps of sugar, completes the tea set – no milk. Once the first cup is drained, it is then rinsed, passed on to the next person and my turn comes round. Not used to drinking tea so hot, I have barely finished half of my cup when it is emptied out and refilled again for the next one in our trio – they are obviously thirsty. When my turn comes round again, I make sure I finish it before it is passed on. For years afterwards, people are amazed at how quickly I can drink hot liquids.
Using sign language, I show that we are going east to Afghanistan and India when one guy keeps saying “Hyam! Hyam!” with the HY bit spoken as a very throaty CH like in loch. The penny finally drops, Omar Khayyam! Iran’s most famous poet not to mention astronomer and mathematician as well. His birthplace Nishapur is on the way to Meshed and Afghanistan.
During the evening, a small heavily pregnant woman comes into the room. She has a long discussion with the uniformed chap who seems to be the duty officer. He sits there with his arms folded but his only response is a shaking of the head – he doesn’t even open his mouth to speak, the body language says it all. Undaunted, her hand gestures get more elegant and she really tries to charm the guy, talking softly and smiling sweetly then with a sigh, rests her big belly on the desk of the duty officer. Two or three times she sighs and adjusts her belly placing it on a different part of the desk, but this appeal to the officer’s better nature gets nowhere. Twenty minutes of this and she finally storms out of the room slamming the door, cursing us all. The other three men collapse laughing for several minutes.
At about 10-o-clock I guess, I retire to my bed – no singing this night and am allowed to take the paraffin heater to my room.
During this time and completely unknown to me, my friends have reached Teheran and got in touch with the UK Embassy. They are less than helpful, saying something like: “Look here old chap, it’s Sunday afternoon. Nothing much to be done is there? Try and sort it out yourselves.” To my friends intense disappointment, the manager of Gol-e-Sahra is also unhelpful.
Sunday morning comes and I am taken back to court. With no news from my friends, I am informed that I am now officially under arrest, so I go back to the police station feeling like one of the Great Train Robbers. However, I am hardly a high risk prisoner so as a gesture to diplomacy, I will be allowed to continue sleeping in the spare room rather than the main cell which seems to have filled up with a few villains including presumably, the husband/son of the drama lady from the night before.
The police chief speaks a little English and during the afternoon, a telegram in Farsi arrives from the British Embassy asking for information. My name has been transliterated incorrectly as EMSEN which the police chief corrects with a small stroke of his fountain pen writing from right to left, adding the extra consonant to make my name read EMSDEN. He passes the message to a colleague asking him to send an acknowledgement. I do not have a clue what is going on generally and in particular, have no idea whether the boy is alive or dead.
The Lad is OK
All this changes at about 7-o-clock on the Monday evening. My friends turn up with the boy’s three relatives with the lad asleep on his mother’s shoulder – at least he is alive. The quiet of the evening evaporates as negotiations begin for compensation. My friends have the health note from the doctors at the Teheran hospital stating that the boy is fit to leave hospital. His relatives refuse to accept this at first, convinced that my friends bribed the doctors. This accusation leads to a furious response from a tiny Iranian nurse, a drama which I miss.
This leaves the matter of compensation to be agreed and the drama unfolds before me where I have a ringside seat. The family’s figure naturally starts at an outrageous amount and over a couple of hours with shouts and insults being hurled back and forth, a reasonable figure is agreed which we can afford. But there is an obstacle – the boy’s elderly grandfather/uncle sits shaking his head in one corner of the room, on my left. The “detective” who has conducted the negotiations, still in his brown overcoat is in the other corner on my right. Everyone is shouting, pleading with the old man who won’t budge.
My discharge paper lays there on a table between the two protagonists waiting only for his mark. Since my accuser could not write, both the original charge and my release documents were written out for him with his index finger print in green ink acting as signature.
The room goes quiet – we have reached an impasse.
Just as I am wondering how much longer this will go on, the old man seems to fly across the room and with a flurry of green ink, counter-signatures and much cursing, the release is signed and I am free. But I cannot leave immediately, as my friends have to pay for my food which I had been given while in custody and Dave takes a couple of photos with the guard on duty outside proudly brandishing his sub-machine gun which he keeps by his side when on night guard duty. Since I have been under arrest since noon, my finger prints and mugshots are taken – left and right profile and front view. Prints are taken of each finger individually and then with all four fingers together. This process takes about 20 minutes and I wonder if they are still on file with Interpol somewhere.
With the case wrapped up, there is something of a party atmosphere and it is only towards midnight that we can take our leave of the police station and Garmsar. We drive for about 20 minutes, turn off the road as usual to pitch camp and crash out exhausted after making a quick meal.
Relief next morning is short-lived. Two Iranian Air Force Northrop two-seat trainer jets come round in a big circle and zoom over our camp at 200 feet. I swear I can see the buggers in the cockpits laughing.
The AA notes also mention Omar Khyam and Nishapur so we stop at the Omar Khyam Memorial Library. Life size photos of soldiers in nineteenth century dress uniform with big brass buttons, ornate swords and impressive handlebar moustaches, line the walls. It is raining hard outside, so we spend a couple of hours looking through different editions of his poetry. Quite a few of his poems mention wine and he does not seem to like the judiciary very much:
Oh Judge, you drink the blood of men
Whereas we drink the blood of wine
The weather clears, so we leave the empty library to carry on to Meshed, centre of the Persian carpet industry and its huge mosque – at the time, the largest in Islam. There is a huge ring road in the centre of Meshed with a souk where we wander for hours. Inevitably, we end up in a carpet shop as one of us is thinking about buying a carpet. We sit down for a very long chat and endless cups of tea, again drunk without milk, from small glasses just like in Garmsar. Somewhere in the long negotiations, a Japanese guy gets involved and the process ends with Dave swapping his Topcon SLR camera and some money for a carpet. The feeling that we have a bargain diminishes after someone points out a smudge where the red dye has run. Near the souk we have what turns out to be our first shish kebab with rice, now of course, a common sight in the UK. The mosque is indeed huge but unlike the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, we are not allowed in.