The road from Ahvaz to Khorramshahr has two lanes, is a hundred kilometres long and has no gradients, no bends and no cross roads.
At first we passed through scrubland so flat it stretched into the distance before dropping from view round the curve of the earth. In the hazy, shimmering heat a few stunted trees struggled for life and on the horizon there were shapes that might have been oil installations – or they might have been ghostly galleons marooned on a mud brown sea.
The road ran almost parallel to the Iraqi border, but not quite, and as we veered towards it the roadblocks, now manned by smartly uniformed military policemen, became more frequent. […]
The already desolate land became even more desolate, the scrub disappeared and we found ourselves in an unrelieved brown plain with occasional pools of brackish water, some part covered by a film of salt.
Beside the road, every five kilometres or so, a burnt out and mangled tank or armoured car stood on a concrete plinth. Never before, nor since, have I seen war memorials so brutal and chilling.
Healthier looking blue lakes started to appear. Created by thirty centimetre high mud dams – all that is required to hold back several km² of water on such a plain – they were the breeding grounds of the Persian Gulf prawns that N ate last night.
On such a road I would have expected checkpoints to be visible miles away, but one suddenly loomed out of the desert and a soldier waved us to a halt. We were entering the restricted area and N looked tense as he pulled the Ministry of Tourism laissez passé from his file. The soldier read it carefully, nodded and waved us through into a tree-lined boulevard with flowers along the central reservation.
A road is usually a strip of sterile tarmac through the living green countryside, in a strange reversal this one with its trees and flowers was a line of life through a dead land.
Suddenly we entered Khorramshahr, the city appearing no less abruptly than the check point.
Our route took us round the edge of the city, along neat and prosperous streets and then across the Karun. Ships were moored along the banks, loading or unloading, but many more had been pulled from the water and sat rusting in the sunshine and salt air.
Over the bridge we were on Abadan Island. Khorramshahr had crossed onto the island too, and we passed through an area of new housing with barrack-like blocks, most still under construction.
Khorramshahr ended, we crossed a kilometre of desert and then, beside the road, was a concrete sign. In jaunty primary colours we saw a smiling sun, a yacht propelled by a gentle breeze and the words “Welcome to Abadan.”
After fifty years I was home, after a fashion.
Before 1910 this island – an 80km long mud flat at the mouth of the Shatt-el-Arab – was home to a handful of Arab fishermen. The south-western end is still the domain of date palms and fishing boats, but we entered at the north east, home to the oil refinery and the city that grew up to service it. In 1950 Abadan was home to some 200,000. It subsequently grew, possibly to as many as half a million, but then came the ‘Imposed War’. The most recent census suggested a population of 170,000.
We arrived in Breim, the management suburb. No sign was needed; this was clearly an area laid out by a European eye. Behind privet hedges were bungalows with small lawns and swing seats on verandas.
We drove through Breim and round the refinery to the bank of the Shatt-al-Arab (or Arvand River as the Iranians call it). On the far side, no more than a hundred metres away, were the palm trees of Iraq.
Past the refinery we came to the edge of Abadan Town, the Iranian quarter that grew up to serve the unofficial needs of the oil company, a densely packed square of dwellings and shops. I had studied maps and photographs of 1950s Abadan at Warwick University. The lay-out of the city – the five equal sized blocks of Breim, the refinery, Abadan Town, Bawarda and a tank farm, lying one after another beside the Shatt-al-Arab – was clear in my mind. Little seemed to have changed and I had the impression the city was lifting itself off the map like a pop-up model.
Turning left we skirting the town. The AIOC nursing home had been near here but while I was searching for a sign we stopped outside what appeared to be a derelict building. Over where the door should have been was the sign ‘AK Hotel’.
Next door had taken a direct hit during the war and part of the hotel’s façade went with it. Rather doubtfully we walked through the broken entrance and up a small flight of scruffy stairs towards an intact and a slightly smarter glass door.
The small, low ceilinged lobby was dingy but clean enough and blessedly cool. A gruff individual eyed us with suspicion and, after some persuasion, grudgingly accepted that we had a booking. A boy led us out of the cool room, up another flight of stairs and along a corridor with a peeling ceiling; the walls were not peeling because there was nothing left to peel. He opened one room for N, whose face was a picture of distaste, and a second for Lynne and me.
Our room had four beds, an old fashioned cooler, a ceiling fan and an odour of damp that made my eyes water. N came in and grunted. He opened the toilet door and grunted again, then he closed it and went back to grunt at his own room. I stuck my head into the bathroom. If the bedroom smelled of damp, the bathroom smelled like a rat had drowned there and was quietly decomposing in the bathtub. There was also a sizeable hole in the ceiling but whether this was bomb damage or the result of damp plaster simply falling off I could not tell.
I switched on the ceiling fan. At first nothing happened and then, with great reluctance, the arthritic motor started to wind the blade round. We watched as slowly and painfully it began chopping slices from the foetid air.
Lynne and I looked at each other. I turned down one of the beds and it at least seemed clean.
“It’s only for two nights,” I said.
‘Do not complain of hardship in your quest for knowledge;
No success can be complete without the suffering of pain.’
I came across these words of the poet Hafez later, but I expect N knew them, Persian conversation is peppered with quotations from Hafez, Sa’adi and Ferdowsi. I did, however remember the politely coded warning of Hossein Afshar in Tehran: “I know this hotel, it is an economy hotel… but it is all right.”
N knocked on the door, poked his head in and said, “Let’s go for lunch.”
Normally we discussed where to go, but today we sat in silence as N drove us back out towards Breim and pulled into the Abadan Azadi one of the two big hotels we had passed on the way in. Like the AK[Keyvan hotel] its nearest neighbour was bombed out, but unlike the AK it sat in its own a large plot and was itself in good repair.
The large, airy lobby was painted a cool green and filled with the busy hum of air-conditioners ensuring it felt as cool as it looked. In the dining room we picked one of the many empty tables and sat down.
At heart, I am a back-packer and I can rough it with the best of them, but my head knows that I have reached the age where I prefer hotels where the stars are in the guidebook, not shining where the ceiling should be. [And if this was true in 2000, it is doubly true in 2015]. In the economy hotel we were regarded with hostility, here we blended in; at least, we were no more odd than the Chinese Airline workers, furtive Persian businessmen and party of bewildered-looking central Asians who were our fellow lunchers.
I suggested upgrading. This is what N had expected me to say – indeed it was why he had brought us here – and his relief was palpable.
We booked in and returned to the AK to reclaim our luggage. When you employ a guide there are certain conversations you feel obliged to leave to them, so I happily allowed N to conduct the heated discussion that was required by the proprietor of the AK. As we left the phone rang; it was the police wanting to talk to N. The proprietor had notified them of our arrival and they wanted to know what foreigners travelling on tourist visas were doing in Abadan in July. N told them we had moved to the Azadi, which partly alleviated their suspicions – it is the sort of place tourists, should any ever some to Abadan, were supposed to stay. They said they would call that afternoon to speak to me.
Back in the Azadi Lynne elected to take a siesta whilst N and I and sat in the lobby, waiting for the police and discussing caviar. Then he decided he needed a siesta too.
For a while I sat on my own, savouring the knowledge that in six years my father had never lived in Breim, and I had made it on my first night. Then I became bored with waiting, so I fetched my camera, mentally prepared myself for the heat that would hit me as soon as I walked through the door and went for a stroll.
Actually, it was not as hot as Ahvaz – hardly forty degrees – though the humidity was uncomfortable. I had the streets to myself – sane people hide from the mid-afternoon sun – as I wandered through a weird sub-tropical Buckinghamshire. Some houses were deserted and decaying, but others were lived in and for a moment I felt I was walking through the 1940s. Unlike the 1940s, though, the unseen residents were Iranians, back then the only Iranians tolerated in Breim were servants.
In the evening we went to the airport to pick up Hossein Afshar. On the way N mentioned that his army officer father had been stationed in Abadan in the early seventies, and as a child he had actually lived in Breim.
Abadan’s small but busy airport sits on a corner of the island well away from the town and the refinery but quite close to Iraq. It is an international airport with flights to all parts of the [Persian]Gulf, though not beyond. In 1948 my parents arrived here on a direct flight from London, or at least from Bournemouth; after three days’ fog delay BOAC gave up on Heathrow and bused their passengers down to Hurn airport.
The plane arrived and we saw Hossein Afshar bound down the steps with an overnight bag over his shoulder. Minutes later he was inside the terminal. “Let’s go,” he said as we shook hands.
Driving back down the dual-carriageway towards Abadan he told us that in 1950 this had been a single-track road carving its way through the date palms and that only a bridge of boats linked Abadan to Khorramshahr.
My parents had driven down this road from the airport and crossed the river. My mother spent her first night in Persia (as my parents always called Iran) in the AIOC compound in Khorramshahr. I tried to put myself in their shoes and imagined their feelings, my father perhaps worrying about how his new bride would cope with this rough, ready and, to her, very strange new world. My mother I imagined apprehensive, maybe even frightened, wondering what she had let herself in for. Her only previous experience of ‘abroad’ – a school trip to Paris – had hardly been a preparation.
I asked her when I got home and possibly my imagining was wide of the mark. She said that the whole journey was like a wonderful dream and on that first night she sat on the veranda of the Khorramshahr guesthouse and looked up at the clear night sky. There were stars in their millions, so large they shone like jewels and she felt she could reach out and touch them. She had never realised how wonderful life can be. Some weeks later, looking at my photographs she said that when she first saw Khorramshahr she had thought ‘Dear God, what sort of place have I come to?’ So maybe I was right and wrong.
I told Mr Afshar that we had moved to the Azadi and he looked as relieved as N had earlier. In Tehran I had realised he was a man of some status, now I learned that he had been mayor of Khorramshahr in the seventies, and when we reached the hotel he telephoned the local MP to announce his arrival.
We dined on Persian Gulf prawns – large and rather tough – and Mr Afshar told us that before the revolution the Azadi had been a night-club with a floorshow imported ‘direct from the Moulin Rouge’ and a clientele imported direct from less liberal [Persian]Gulf states – special flights arrived early evening and left the following morning. The building had been owned by the national airline and he had been in their office when revolutionary zealots arrived to burn it down. He explained to them that the building was not to blame for the uses it had been put to and as they were now the government they owned it and it would be foolish to torch their own property. History records many incidents when people have been just that foolish, but this was not one of them.
As we were eating, a messenger arrived to say that some gentlemen were in the foyer waiting to meet us. Mr Afshar excused himself and went to see them.
The local MP had reasoned that if someone as important as Hossein Afshar was flying from Tehran to see me, then I must be important and he had sent the Chairman of the Co-operation Council, a sort of regional development agency, and his assistant to welcome me.
I sat in silence as Mr Afshar and the Chairman conversed in Farsi. Mr Afshar broke off to explain their plans to develop the area and provide employment. The Persian Gulf prawns project was up and running and ripe for further investment and they also had plans to irrigate the surrounding land. I made some comment about its saltiness, it seemed required of me. What Mr Afshar was too polite to translate, but N told me later, was that he was being asked how much I was planning to invest and would it be better to direct me towards agriculture or prawn farming. I am not a poor man, but neither am I rich and if they were looking for million dollar investments they were in for disappointment.
N thought it hilarious and suggested I should have gone through the VIP channel at the airport. I told him I would be a rich man if I had not spent all my money visiting his country. I then pondered as to whether I should be embarrassed, but decided not to be – at least the police would not bother me now. I spared a further thought for how embarrassing it would have been to entertain the ex-mayor of Khorramshahr in the flea pit that was the AK[Keyvan] hotel.