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Me walking towards the Kilimanjaro ice cap

My flag
Conquering Mount Kilimanjaro cleared my mind

By Amir Khosrow Sheibany
May 18, 2001
The Iranian

1994. Sitting in my office, on London's Savile row, behind Piccadilly Circus, I was more than just bored, I was demoralized. Aged 25, single, white and male. I wondered, had I struggled through a quarter of a century, through recession and unemployment to be sitting in an office pretending to work?

Waking up every morning to the day to day humdrum of dreary office work, for a token salary suggesting a never never nest, was not for me. It made me wonder -- what is the meaning of life? I was in need of a challenge, and as it happened, there were a few friends of mine wondering the very same thought: "Is this it?" We discussed this question over many, many, months and our engineering minds came up with a number of options, but no one was sure what to do or how to build up the courage to do it.

The options were simple:

(A.) Get married: assuming you can find a wife who can accept ones circumstances.

(B.) Leave the corporate world and start your own business: "Be your own boss!"

(C.) Study business - at Harvard :-)... and start a new life two years hence.

Then one day my ingenuous organic calculator said to me, "Hey, when the Incas wanted to think or pray they went up a mountain. When Zoroaster and Jesus went into the wilderness to discover themselves and the meaning of life, they went up -- geographically. When Moses was given the Ten Commandments and spoke with God, he went up a mountain. When the mountain didn't go to Mohammad, Mohammad went to the mountain (or did he get his revelations in a cave, I can't remember)."

It became clear that for profound wisdom, one must clear one's head by climbing to some summit. And what better place to go than Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, the highest peak in Africa at 5,895 meters (19,341 ft). It's snowy peak shall be the rendezvous for our quest, and we shall not descend until we have each decided which of the options (A.), (B.) or (C.) we are going to choose. And upon return to our respective countries we will "just do it! " Click on image

Africa, that continent which for centuries had drawn to its shores every type of adventurer and challenge seeker. It was in a sense a frontier to be explored by those who wanted to escape from the surly bonds of daily routine to discover themselves. Seven friends were up to the challenge, a Frenchman from Monaco, two Lebanese from Juan-les-pins and London, an Armenian from Brussels an Englishman and woman from Oxford and moi, "panaahande Irooni" in London from the age of nine.

We knew full well that ten people die each year attempting this "easy" summit and we had to prepare physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually for this adventure.

Within three weeks an expedition was set: KLM flight from London to Amsterdam to Nairobi to Arusha/Moshi near Kilimanjaro. And what an interesting place Tanzania proved to be, with its Shirazi community (from Shiraz- where else!) and Zoroastrians in Zanzibar (Zangebar in Farsi), the island close to the mainland capital of Dar-e Salaam and all sorts of historical links to the Sultanate of Oman and Persia.

I even received quite a few laughs from the authorities at the airport with my family name. Sheibani is the name of a famous literary family in Tanzania. They are as black as Haji Firouz. What's a tall, white, dude going around with a Tanzanian name like that, they wondered.

So, seven friends had made their way to Africa. We picked Kilimanjaro because it was supposedly possible to climb without prior mountain climbing experience. On the way there I learnt more about Tanzania and its history. During Queen Victoria's time, the mountain, which is right on the border with Kenya, was given to Tanzania as a present, Shatt Al-Arab style. More recent history: Freddie (Farouk) Mercury, lead singer from the famous UK rock band Queen, was a Zardoshti from Zanzibar. He left Zanzibar with his family after the political troubles described in a guidebook about Tanzania:

A land of plains, lakes and mountains with a narrow coastal belt, Tanzania is East Africa's largest country. Its capital very recently moved from Dar-e Salaam to Dodoma. Over 100 different tribal groups make up the countries 20 million population. The majority are of Bantu origin. The islands of Zanzibar and Pemba have people who are a mix of Shirazis (from Persia) Arabs and Comorians (from Comoros Islands). They introduced many of theirlocal vocabulary, denominations and customs, though after many years under the British protectorate, much of the instruments of trade were changed to British terms, such as theircurrency that is now the shilling. Zanzibar, which had been ruled for decades from Oman, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, became such an important trading center that the Omani Sultan, Seyyid Said, moved his capital there from Muscat in 1832. After a Communist inspired revolution that left most of the Arab/Persian locals massacred or expelled and brief rule under the revolutionary council of the Afro-Shirazi Party, Zanzibar and Pembar joined Tanganyika to form Tanzania.

We disembarked from the 747 onto the tarmac in Moshi and walked to the small airport terminal. The baggage was put onto trolleys and the airplane flew away to its next destination. As soon as the plane backed away and it's bright headlights no longer shone on the terminal, the entire terminal's lighting had faded to the glow of weak yellow lamps inside. As I looked into the darkness surrounding me, I understood that we were now truly in A-f-r-i-c-a.

We all arrived with several pieces of luggage and it was quite stressful getting everything organized and placed on the Land Rover. I had one conspicuous, extra piece of luggage, an Iranian flag, all wrapped up with Marks & Spencer plastic wrapping and rubber bands. It was on a big six-foot pole and with all the other baggage, the flag was proving to be a big nuisance to carry.

As we drove to our first hotel where we would plan the expedition, I saw one of the most amazing, beautiful and awe-inspiring sights of my life. There were no cities in sight, no street lamps, only the light from our Land Rover and the sky above. And what a sky it was! There was a sprinkle of lights above, bright as a discotheque, so dense in the center that the light was like illuminated milk (now I know why it is called the Milky Way). Not all the stars were white. Some glowed with a red or blue colour. I could only stare up at the sky, mapped by the bright stars, in complete wonder.

We saw no lions but saw pretty much everything else. We had arranged a rendezvous with 22 helpers: 16 porters, 2 cooks, 3 assistant guides and one chief guide. It was like sending a Saturn 5 rocket to the moon. To carry the food supplies for the seven of us for the five-day journey, we needed so many porters, but then to carry food for those porters we needed another bunch of porters. Click on image

It was here I got my first big frown. The chief in charge of the base camp saw that I was with a flag and he let out a primal scream of anger: "You cannot put your flag on our mountain!!" And he confiscated it and placed it in the corner of the room behind him and said I could collect it on my return. There was no reasoning with the angry man.

As we started our ascent I slipped a few greenbacks, ten bucks I think it was, to one of the porters and asked him to be a good boy and go and nick the flag for me, which he did. Little did I know how much trouble I was now in.

First Day

It was initially a nice stroll, walking through the clearing made in the woods. It wasn't too steep and there was no problem breathing. We learnt that most people fail to reach the summit because of a lack of oxygen, not lack of strength. It is a fact that most women who attempt this climb make it to the top. Presumably a woman who comes all this way to do such a crazy thing is determined to make it. As lack of oxygen is the key stumbling block, those who smoke are more likely to make it to the top than those of us who abstain. I guess their brains need less oxygen or is it that they use their brains less?

That first evening in camp we were exhausted and ready for a good night's sleep. Sitting by the fire as the sun was setting, eating our first day's rations, I saw a group of men in army uniform with AK-47 machineguns enter the camp area. They were marching towards me with a fierce look in their eyes. A few moments later they had surrounded me, machineguns pointed. And who should be their leader? My old friend, the chief from the base camp, with a hand-cuff in one hand and looking seriously pissed-off. He screamed and screamed. "I can arrest you! You have no right to put your flag on OUR mountain!!" Anyhow, they took the flag, went to the other end of the camp area to get a drink and prepared to make their way down again.

I was quite shook up. Did he really come all this way up because of my flag? My friends said I was lucky he didn't arrest me, and that they have a spare ski pole I could use in the climb, so not to worry.

But I was not going to let it be. I quickly started to write a letter, while my friends protested that I should forget about the flag. I wrote to the commissionaire of Tanzania national parks. I said I had no intention of leaving the flag up there and how disappointed I would be with this holiday because of this experience, after all, I said, if he looks in his book of flags, he will notice that no country sports a flag like it at the moment. I handed the letter to the soldiers and assumed they will either dump it, or it will get to its destination in a few months time.

Second Day

The second day we had gotten out of the forestation and into the shrubs, and it was getting quite cold. The plants were a bit more exotic and rough. The stress and pressure had begun to build up on us though we did not realize it then. The ski poles started to become useful as we stopped quite often to sit and I used it as a stick to get up again. We had the same food again that night around the fire and I knew that by the third night I would be sick of our culinary delights of stale Cadbury chocolate and local sandwiches. I yearned for a gourmet meal at one of my favorite London restaurants. But this night I slept outside our cabin instead and looked straight up into the stars.

After the second night we woke up to a treat from nature. The clouds were just below us, and as the orange sun came up, through them we saw a beautiful, spectacular display of colour. It was at this point that our two friends from England gave up. They were getting heart palpitations, and much preferred to start the safari, the next stage of our holiday, early.

I got another surprise. The commissionaire of Tanzania or Kilimanjaro national parks must have read my letter that previous night, agreed with my position, and ordered some poor chap to run up with the flag and give it back to me with an apology.

Third Day

A tough day. We saw people coming down from the peak with frostbites, some obviously in quite bad condition. The landscape had become quite barren. It was cold - -we had to wear our jackets -- and it had become a steeper ascent. We stopped chitchatting with each other in order to conserve our energy. The air had gotten increasingly thin. Click on image

We approached camp 3, the last one that we would sleep in before the final ascent to the summit. This last resting-place was at 4,700 meters, higher than Mount Blanc, the highest point in Europe. (FYI: Damavand stands at 5,670 meters)

Legend has it that one climbs Mount Kilimanjaro to find out who one's friends really are. A few weeks before us there had been two celebrities, Tim Jefferies and Elle McPhereson, attempting to climb this same mountain, just prior to getting married. I can see why. In the civil world of Western Europe, you meet friends in cozy surroundings with not a lot to worry other than social graces and protocols, "taarofs", "adaa" and "tashrifaat".

Here, where there is no running water, let alone a shower, there is no such luck. The pressure builds up with stealth and you get irritated that you have not washed, irritated that your toilet is a hole in the ground, irritated that there is no waiter to take your order. Soon there is tension between you and your friends.

You start skipping a few considerations and courtesies. Eventually, you either get on each other's nerves enough to start a verbal fight, or you find you are friends enough to get over all this and help each other out.

At least one of our friends didn't show himself in a good light, and the mannerism of another suggested a character different to that we had previously known.The flag was one reason he became annoyed with me. It was in "everyone's face," he moaned. It proves, he said, that I'm not part of the team of friends but in fact on my own "personal mission". Though most of the others said they didn't feel intimidated by the flag or distracted by any greater meaning of why I had brought it with me, not everyone was a happy bunny at this point. Click on image

I was left to figure out why there was such a reaction to the flag. It didn't even mean anything to any of these people around me, and yet its presence got heartbeats pumping faster.

Fourth Day

By now the going was really rough. Two more friends (the French residents) gave up. They were going blue in the face with the lack of oxygen. It was cold, it was hard to breathe. It was pointless. Why go to all this pain to get to the top?

Just a hundred meters or so before Gilman's point, where most climbers sit down at about 6 am to watch the sun rise over Africa, two other friends gave up (the Lebanese and the Belgian). They felt they might make it to the top, but then they wouldn't have the energy to get down, and it was starting to look dangerous.

So now it was just me, with one assistant guide. I was totally exhausted. If it was not for this flag, and having told everyone in London that I was going to come back with a picture with it from the top of Kilimanjaro, I would have rather given up too. After all, I was on a lunar landscape, freezing cold, not able to breath properly. All the pain could end just as soon as I say those warm, cozy words, "I give up."

I nearly did give up. With every breath, I was thinking, "I'm not going to make it!... I'm not going to make it!... I'm not going to make it!" But this was my national flag. For centuries my forefathers had gone through a lot more pain and heartache for this flag than a shortness of breath! It was the words of the assistant guide to another climber, that finally got me off the ground. "Noo mon," he said in his heavy, deep, accented voice. "You cannot give up now. In just a few hours mon, you'll be on top of A-F-R-I-C-A." With these inspiring words, I got up and made it to Uhuru (freedom) Peak, the highest point in Africa. Click on image

Well, I did it. Another one-and-a-half days march would get me to base camp and a nice, warm safari with the others. Also I had made up my mind what I was going to do with my life. I can hear you asking, "Which is it? (A.), (B.) or (C.)? Are you the first Irooni with an Iranian flag on Kilimanjaro?"

Well as for being the first Iranian to reach the top, I don't know. If anyone knows of any Iranian who reached Uhuru Peak before 1994, please email me. As for life choices, most of us made a decision. A Lebanese friend of mine, who was the very last expedition member to give up, chose to marry his Iranian girlfriend. Two friends applied for MBA's. Both got into Harvard, one without an interview. And as for me, the nevisandeh, I left permanent employment and started my own consultancy company, with another friend. At its peak we had 15 consultants working on client sites.

It was interesting, four years later, when all but one of the seven friends met up again. (One friend was killed in a plane crash on another adventure). No one regretted what we had each chosen to do. Even though there had been many ups and downs on the way. We had all set our sights on new goals and it was clear to us that there is no single destination that makes one truly happy and fulfilled. Click on image

In fact, as I had heard many times before, "It's the journey and not the destination that matters" -- or at least the journey should be as pleasant as the destination. I hope those of you who spent the last 22 years building a perfect theocratic Islamic society are finding life as enjoyable as I am. It appears, however, a series of haphazard and contradictory statements from the Islamic Republicans, forced on to people through terror, are in fact negating life for Iranians of all persuasions.

This trip made me think for the first time about the significance of a national flag. It made me wonder why it created such a reaction in people of different cultures. How fundamental is a flag to national identity and unity? Very much so would be my guess. The flag is a symbol of a national ideology. Every item and colour on the flag symbolically represents one part of that ideology.

For example, from what I know of the Shir-o-Khorshid (lion and sun) flag that I took with me, the sun is the symbol of light and warmth for everybody, the red-white-green symbolises willingness to shed blood in defense of country (red), desire for peace (white) and Islam as predominant religion/nature (green). And the crown is a symbolic representation of hereditary kingship aimed at stability of the culture presented by characteristics the king symbolizes.

Zardosht who wrote about "light" (the sun behind the lion), believed that Ahura Mazda bestowed health and happiness to human beings. Sadness and mourning being created by Ahriman (Satan). The message was that one should lead his life based on truth and justice. Through an amicable relationship with other peoples and dialogue between cultures, one should increase one's knowledge and raise one's moral standard with the aim of gradually turning this world into paradise. Maybe that's why I am so interested in the cultures of the world.

And what a paradise we now have! Since the day the Iranian flag was changed from Iranian symbolism to the current Arabic scripture, the La Elaha El-Allah in the shape of a tulip (that I am told was used first by Muslim freemasons in British India of a 100+ years ago), we have had misery, disorientation, cynicism, and resentment. Where did the hope, resilience, visions and dreams of the Founding Fathers of the classical Iranian nation state go, I wonder? Click on image

These are the touchstone years to think about national identity and personal values. This adventure with the flag was just one milestone for me. All of today's street talk is about the wish for freedom, tolerance and justice, as embodied in Western democratic systems. And yet I don't hear much about the national identity of the various political factions and religions pursuing freedom, democracy, communism, theocracy, etc.

Are the students on the street Iranian or Arab? Are the mollas Iranian or Arab? Not an easy, or so obvious, question when nearly half of the Iranian vocabulary is Arabic, when the calendar is based on Arab history and up until recently their calculations (355 days in a year). And yet the Iranian Noruz is based on Iranian history and beliefs (365 days in a year).

Our nationalism is based on Iranian identity. Even our colourful tribal costumes and music are at odds with the bland and gray Islamic attire and chants of the Islamic Republic's leadership and the black chadors and Kommiteh / Basij uniforms.

We have been wading in a sophisticated atmosphere created by the collision of Iranian (Arian) and Semitic cultures. Not able to fully express our own culture, because it was presented in a secret / subtle language and works of art (to avoid persecution from our Arab invaders) and not knowing the Semitic culture because we did not know Arabic. Question: If Noruz and Ashura fall on exactly the same day, would you weep and wail, or celebrate your existence? That, I believe, would be the essence of who you are.

"It is the sacred duty of statesmen to steer the world away from the tormenting hell it can become if the darker side of humanity is given free reign." This was the belief of one of our prime ministers. Needless to say he was beaten and shot to death in a manner characteristic of his opponents' virtues.

As much as the current flag has dislocated our society, the Shir-o-Khorshid has, and would, unite us. We could definitely benefit from such unity in a society sharply segregated along class and ideological lines.

After my trip to Africa, away from all my daily worries and challenges, I was not only inspired and emboldened to go for my dream and ambition and start my own company, but the fresh air also cleared my mind of Iranian political discussion and disunity. >>> Me after Kilimanjaro

I now believe that one must FIRST pick one's identity (flag), SECOND cultural / ethical / religious beliefs, and FINALLY someone to implement such ideals, and NOT the other way round. In order for a multicultural society to survive, there is really no other choice anyway. A reaffirming of our national identity is the first step in unifying our people who are pursuing the natural motives of all human beings: freedom, security, health, and justice.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to the writer Amir Khosrow Sheibany


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