I close my eyes. The bright sun caresses my face and a light breeze provides some welcome relief from the heat. I smell the alluring fruits, the fresh vegetables, the pungent spices brought here to the capital of the ancient world. Someone is cooking meat on an open fire. I hear the slap of leather sandals on stone staircases, the crunch of boots on the gravel, the swish of long garments adorning visitors from all corners of the empire. I think I pick up a clash of swords in the distance. I listen to the mix of voices and languages, one tongue dominating. I cannot understand it but know that it is Aramaic.
Beside such towering stones and at the heart of such a mighty kingdom, I feel small and insignificant. Great men have left great marks here. What mark will I leave on the world? Indeed are we here to leave a mark? Our collective marks are ruining the planet and threatening the survival of humankind.
They said that we were crazy to want to come here. They thought that the place was just mad imams and baking desert. They even feared that we would be in danger. After all the country has been in state of international opprobrium for decades. The recurrent demonstrations after the disputed presidential election in the summer have heightened tensions considerably. But I am so glad we came. I am at the centre of a huge and ancient territory. I am Darius. I am Xerxes. I am Alexander.
"Time to go, love."
My wife breaks the reverie as she leans forward across our little circular table and gathers up the bottles that moments before held cold, refreshing orange juice. She is right. Our tour guide had only given us an hour and our coach and our group await. It is a wrench leaving Persepolis, once the capital of the greatest empire on earth, now a monument two and a half millennia old with history in every stone.
I close my eyes. It is cooler now as the sun glides gently to earth but still warm and enveloping. The flowerbeds waft sweet smells towards me and I hear some splashing in the nearby pool. Overlapping conversations swim all around me: someone chanting a prayer, another chatting to a friend, murmurs which - I surmise - come from young lovers.
I recall the scene at the entrance where tiny birds sit on little boxes full of folded texts, each a quote from the revered poet, and the men holding the boxes accept payment from visitors to the park before encouraging the bird to select a verse for the donor. I know that the speaker system around the garden is washing us with Hafez's poetry of six centuries ago and, although I cannot understand the Persian, the undulating rhythms of the readings imbue a sense of peace and calm. I know his ghazals talk of love, friendship, wine, intoxication and, in a way, I am intoxicated now.
"Where are you from?"
I snap my eyes open and turn to the voice. It is an Iranian man in his mid thirties.
"Sorry?" I mutter. I need a moment or two to come back into the here and now.
"You are a tourist?" he inquires.
"Oh, yes. I'm from London. England. My wife and I are with a group touring Iran."
"That is good. I am glad that you are here. Where have you been? You enjoy your visit?"
"Well, we flew to Tehran and visited the National Museum and the National Jewel Museum. Fabulous exhibits. Then we took an internal flight down here to Shiraz. We've been to places like the Tomb of Emir Ali and the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. Stunning architecture. We will travel back to Tehran overland and spent time in Isfahan."
"But what about Persepolis?"
"Oh, we've spent most of today there. It was terrific – so much history. We're on our way back to the hotel now, but this visit to Hafez's tomb is the last of our sights in the area before we leave tomorrow morning."
"Of course, you had to go to Persepolis. It is our greatest archaeological site – a reminder of when our country was the largest empire in the world. You from the West need to remember that. And do you know that, unlike the pyramids, it was not built by slave labour, but by a paid workforce of 10,000 who had their own local housing."
"Really? No, I didn't know that. How do you know so much about Persepolis?"
"Whenever my family or friends from other parts of the country come here, I always take them to Persepolis. I have learned a lot about the place. I am very proud of it."
I look around and spot my wife talking to some other members of our group. I have time. I stay seated next to my new friend.
"You have some parts of Persepolis in your British Museum in London. And other pieces from our Persian history."
"I suppose we do. There's not that much British in the British Museum. But you had two and a half thousand years to look after the site if you cared so much. I'm sure we acquired the pieces in good faith."
"No – they were taken from us and you should return them."
"Look. I'm sure many more people from many more countries visit the British Museum than the ruins of Persepolis."
"That is not the point. The different parts of Persepolis. They are a family. They belong together."
"Gosh. If we give back the Persian artefacts to you, the Greeks will want the Elgin Marbles and, before you know it, there'll be nothing left in the British Museum."
"That is where you have our history."
"Really? How do you know that?"
"Aah. And how do you speak such good English? Have you been to England?"
"No – I have never been anywhere in Europe. But we all learn English at school and I did more at university. I am a doctor and it is the best foreign language for us."
"And what are you doing here at Hafez's tomb?"
"These are difficult times in Iran. This is a peaceful place. Sometimes I come here just to rest and think a little. The hospital is too busy – always pressure. My flat is too little and too noisy – we have a young child."
"Difficult times indeed. We almost didn't come here. For a while after the presidential election, because of the demonstrations, our Foreign Office advised against non-essential travel to Iran. But it seems quiet now."
"Not really. The people are still angry. There are still demonstrations. Every time the government organises an official demonstration, the opposition goes on the streets. Believe me – it is not over."
"Did you go on any of the demonstrations? Do you support the Green Movement?"
"This is not a good place to talk about such things. If you want to talk this way, we have to be in my flat."
He pulls out a small notebook and tears out a page and then writes something – in Farsi I assume – from right to left. He passes the page to me.
"Take a taxi to this address. Come for dinner tonight. Then we can talk."
"Are you sure? What about my wife?"
"Of course, you must bring your wife. My wife - she is a nurse – she will be pleased to see you both. Come. Seven o'clock."
We eat dinner Iranian-style: that is, no table or chairs but a plastic, patterned sheet on the living room floor and sitting cross-legged around the food whose names we request. We are served ghorme sabzi, which is a green mix of diced meat, beans and vegetables with rice, and kashk-e bademjan, which is eggplant fried and mashed and served with thick whey and mint, washed down with dugh, a watery yoghurt drink. We feel very privileged to share their flat and their food.
Our new friend Hossein is pleased that we have accepted his invitation. His wife Fatima surprises us though. Although their criticisms of the regime have flowed freely since we walked into the flat, throughout our visit she keeps her head covered in the presence of a strange man – me – but nevertheless breast feeds her baby daughter Shirin in front of us. In Britain, it would be the opposite. Her brown eyes and black lashes look gorgeous underneath carefully sculptured eyebrows. She explains that, in the face of so many restrictions on women's dress in public, the young women of Iran have hit back with what they call "the mascara revolution".
Hossein describes the Iranian power structure to us, but it's amazingly complicated and I lose it somewhere between the Council of Guardians and the Expediency Council. What is clear is that all lines lead to the Supreme Leader. But I can't even recall his name properly – it seems very like the name of the previous one. Hossein explains who are the important figures in the various parts of the Byzantine political system, graphically indicting his attitude to each, but the complicated names mean nothing to me. I'm really not that political. I came here for the history and the culture and never expected to become involved in a discussion of the current political crisis.
Fatima brings us cups of hot, milk-less tea to end the meal and Hossein tells us: "The Shirazi people have a reputation throughout the rest of Iran. They think we are lazy."
"Yes, our guide told us that – but then he's from Tehran."
"The people of Shiraz are not lazy. They just take life easier. They are very friendly – as you can see."
"Don't worry – I'm convinced. We are having a wonderful evening."
"We have had demonstrations here, but Shiraz is not the centre of the struggle. Tehran is where the regime is most under pressure. That is why I went to the capital for all the big marches in June. A group of us from the hospital went to almost every one."
"And how was it?"
"At first, the people were excited. We were angry at the cheating in the election but we thought that there were so many on the streets there must be some changes. Maybe a recount. Maybe another election. Then, after a few days, they set the Basij on us. They charged into the demonstrators on their motorbikes, one man driving, the other hitting out with his steel baton. It was horrible. People running in every direction. Crying. Screaming."
Hossein pauses, the memories crushing him.
"I had never seen anything like it. Men and women. Some just students, even schoolchildren. Huge bruises on arms, shoulders, legs, backs. Broken arms. Cracked ribs. Skulls smashed and blood pouring down their face. I and my doctor friends, we tried to help some of the injured. We dragged them into side streets and did the best we could for them. The ambulances could not get through. When the Basijis saw us providing aid, they came for us. I ran. But they were on motorbikes. They got me. They took me to Evin prison." He stops as if out of breath.
"What happened to you?" I ask.
Fatima intervenes in her broken English: "Please. Not to ask him."
I observe him silently, stare into his eyes, see black clouds that speak volumes.
As we take our leave, I don't know what to say. My wife kisses little Shirin, hugs Fatima, and tells Hossein: "You have been so kind. Perhaps one day we can return your kindness in London." No chance, I think - almost gratefully.
Somehow they let Hossein out of Iran. Perhaps their records aren't that good. Perhaps they hope that he won't go back. Somehow he obtained a British visa. But he was attending a distinguished international medical conference in London. And I did give him a fulsome testimonial, saying how well I knew him, how I would meet his expenses for the days after the conference, how I would ensure that he would return home.
Of course, once the conference was over and he was staying with us, what he wanted to do most was visit the British Museum. So here we are, having requested directions to Room 52 and climbed the east stairs. And, of course, he is correct – everything in the room relates to what is called Ancient Iran.
Hossein soaks up every object, reads every word, looks from every angle. The largest items pertaining to Persepolis are in fact merely plaster casts. But, as he studies the original artefacts - various fragments of reliefs - he contrives to make me feel a personal sense of guilt. I want to say: "Don't blame me. It was those early British explorers – and I'm sure they meant well. Look how wonderfully preserved and presented they are. Look at how many visitors are coming to see them." But I know that he will not be persuaded so I say nothing.
He finishes our visit by standing in front of the glass case in the centre of the room holding the Cyrus cylinder. The description explains that this clay cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia, of his conquest of Babylon in 539 BC. The good doctor is in awe. Finally he turns to me and declares: "Just look at this. Two and a half thousand years old. When you English were living the most primitive of lives, our king was leading a great empire and making the first declaration of human rights in history."
I am exasperated: "A declaration of human rights? Oh, come on. I know you're proud of the Iranian heritage, but I don't think the concept of human rights had much meaning that long ago. Anyway rulers don't give people rights; people have to win them. That's the British story from the days of Magna Carta which really was a bill of rights."
His tone is harsh and catches me unawares: "You talk to me of fighting for rights? What do you British today know about the struggle for rights? You have no idea how comfortable your life is. You have no idea what it is like to fear to protest, to fear a militia, to be taken to prison, to be brutally interrogated."
I recall this morning as Hossein left the bathroom and passed me on the landing. I shiver at the thought of those scars on his back. Of course, he is right.
So I respond somewhat lamely: "Yes, we are fortunate in this country. I think we know it which is why we try to promote human rights around the world."
At this, Hossein adopts a cynical intonation: "Really? Do you know your own history? Do you know our history? A century ago, Britain and Russia divided Persia into their own spheres of influence and, during the Second World War, Britain and the Soviet Union actually invaded us. Where were our rights then?"
I protest: "But that was a long time ago."
Hossein hardly hesitates: "Alright - let us be more up-to-date. Britain supported Iraq in the Imposed War against Iran. You have nuclear weapons but you don't want us to develop nuclear power."
"That's not why the UN has imposed sanctions against Iran ..." I start to explain and then give up. This is not how I had imagined my time in London with my Iranian friend. I feel humbled and in truth a little ashamed.
My wife has made a delicious dinner for Hossein's last evening with us but he hardly touches it. Our conversation slumps into near silence.
Slowly and heavily he raises his head and announces quietly: "I cannot go back to Iran."
I am confused: "What do you mean?"
"I want to stay here. I want to seek political asylum."
I am stunned: "But it doesn't work like that, Hossein. I think if you want to be considered for political asylum, you have to say so as soon as you've entered the country. Anyway I don't think they'd accept you. And I gave an assurance that you would return to Iran."
He looks me hard in the eyes: "And who are you thinking of? Me - or you?"
As usual he is right, But, as usual, I'm not ready to concede the point. So I continue to find reasons for him to return: "What about Fatima and Shirin? You can't leave them. You are a family. You belong together."
"They can join me afterwards."
"If you were accepted for political asylum, I don't think the Iranian authorities would allow Fatima and Shirin to leave the country. Who knows when you would see them again? You have to go back, Hossein."
We are at Heathrow Airport and the flight to Tehran has been called. I give him a hug and, as I pull back, I see his eyes are full. His look is one of desolation and – at least so it seems to me – accusation.
I keep my final words as positive but non-committal as I can: "Safe journey, Hossein, and give our love to Fatima and Shirin. We'll be thinking of you and waiting for your news." He says nothing as he turns and leaves me.
In my car, I rest my arms across the steering wheel and allow my head to fall upon them. I feel tears slowly descending my cheeks.
There is never any news from Hossein. All my calls and e-mails elicit no response. Maybe the authorities have cut off his communications. Maybe he has had an accident or he is very ill. Maybe he has moved. Maybe he has been able to gain entry to another country. Or maybe he has been detained and imprisoned. Or maybe – and somehow this is the most painful thought of all – he feels that I let him down.
Published on 28 December 2009
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