I boarded the plane with my cargo of pistachios. The thick curved walls, the muffled sounds, and the mechanical currents of air made it clear that this space was designed to keep the outside out and the inside in. The symmetric cabin, cozy and stifling at the same time, betrayed the psychology of its makers like a Rorschach. But with the ship operating at thirty thousand feet, who would make it any other way? On the other hand, what madness would possess humans to build a cabin where the bottoms of their feet would be so much higher than any patch of ground?
We taxied to the mysterious spot out of sight of the visitors. There we turned around and, after a moment’s hesitation, began to accelerate to speeds faster than I had ever gone before. I was thinking that, at this rate we should be running out of runway by now. In response to my thought, the craft left the ground with no theatrics whatsoever. An absence of drama that leaves goose bumps over the flesh.
At this point in the narration of a journey, it is traditional to describe the person sitting next to the storyteller. To be frank, I don’t clearly remember who was sitting in the aisle seat next to me. All I recall is an annoyed and confused grunt from behind a newspaper when I said “Haile Selassie” quite loudly. I said it several times in quick succession to allow for error in my calculation of simultaneity with Daryoosh–who had said he would say it several times too just to make sure. I wondered if he got a sense of the aerial view when our minds connected. Iran from above looks much larger than it appears on the ground. The altitude shrinks roads, houses and gardens to miniature dimensions only to contrast their insignificance to the vast deserts and the immense mountains of the land.
After completing my Haile Selasie mission, I set out to perform another experiment of Daryoosh’s design. He had asked me to jump up in the cabin to see if the rear of the craft would hit me in the back. “Why don’t I just toss a coin up in the air?” I had suggested. He mulled this over a bit and agreed to the simplification. Unexpectedly, the coin behaved quite normally, coming back down just where it had gone up–over and over again. After several pistachios yielded the same uninteresting result, I felt perhaps I should try jumping in the aisles. But here my self-consciousness in the presence of fellow travelers left me in default of this debt to science. The passenger behind the newspaper had begun to fidget irritably, perhaps about to ask for a different seat far away from my laboratory.
We were scheduled to stop in Baghdad, but because of an attempted coup that occurred while we were in flight, the Baghdad airport was closed. We made do with a short refueling stop at a military base in some nearby country. Daryoosh insists we must have been in Israel, but some of the passengers believed we were in Cairo. Then off to Rome, Frankfurt, and finally London.
Two cologne-doused Iranians, friends of my father working at the Iranian embassy in London met me at the airport and helped me through customs. The customs officer let the pistachios go, though he seemed privately impressed with the tonnage and was sure I was going to open a pistachio outlet in London. In his official capacity, however, he muttered a bored concern over tobacco and alcohol before lavishly chalking my brand new luggage as cleared. Chalking was the task he seemed to enjoy most, as he took Gauguinesque pains to make his work as painterly as possible.
On the drive to my school it was a surprise to see that the car had its steering wheel on the wrong side. We were driving on the opposite side of the road! But since all the other cars did it wrong too, thankfully everything worked out. Still, the direction of traffic felt odd, reminding me of what various uncles and cousins had said many times: the English are a crafty lot. There is always method to their madness and madness to their methods and they never let you know which is which. There was no flour in Iran, they believed, that was not made into dough by Iranian British agents to be baked in an English oven. The English had been manipulating events everywhere for centuries. They were in league with the mullahs; they were in league with the Shah; they were in league with whoever you least suspected they were in league with. As in a good whodunit, the less you suspected a character of being a British agent, the surer you could be that he really was one.
Until Zionists edged out the British as the prime cause of modern history, the English were responsible for everything that happened short of snowstorms, earthquakes and eclipses. The phrase “British Diplomacy” had long replaced the phrase “I don’t know” in the Iranian political lexicon, and could explain any discomfort the country had felt since the time when the Devil was to blame for everything. It mystified me, however, why such all-pervasive wickedness was often spoken of in admiring terms. Travelers who came back from England told of orderly, responsible, and hard working natives with impeccably polite manners. It seemed the closer you got to the source of this malice, the more benign it got, until right at the center you could mistake it for Heaven.
Perhaps this was the reason Father had taught me not to hate the British, merely to be resentful them. During a visit to London later that school year, he heatedly rebuked me for repeating a rash embassy employee who had said the bastard British did nothing but rob us of our oil.
“How could they rob us of something we didn’t even have until the English told us it was there?” Father said sternly. “We were sitting on that oil for centuries and wouldn’t know what to do with the foul smelling stuff even it poured from the sky like rain. Now someone shows up who’s found a use for it; he brings his technology, his geology, his chemistry, his engineering, his economy, and we want all the money because we are the ones who have been napping on it for three thousand years. Who is being unfair here?”
I was too cowed by his temper to disagree, but immediately suspected that the very argument Father had given was of British manufacture and a manifestation of the dreaded “British Diplomacy.” He was sopping wet on one-half of his body because he had been keeping the umbrella mostly over my head. It was a habit with him to take Mother out for walks every time he felt she needed a sermon. With her gone, he was extending the habit to me.
During the lecture, a crippled man wearing medals reached out a wet and quivering sleeve for money. Father gave him the worst ignoring from the Iranian arsenal of beggar repellents. I asked him why he was so cruel to the English beggar; he was often generous with Iranian ones–who didn’t even wear medals. “They get enough of our oil money,” he harrumphed. What a relief, I thought, “British Diplomacy” hasn’t totally duped him yet. Then I ran back and dropped six pence into the soldier’s cup. It’s what Mother would have done–and caught hell for. Father would deduct six pence from my allowance, I knew. At the very least I would get the dreaded silent treatment.
Surprisingly, the punishment didn’t come. So much the worse for him. Was that all the remorse he was going to show? Thank God he only stayed for a week! I had started a new life on that remote island with never a thought of him, and new troubles to keep me in tears. If he was to intrude with unwanted visits, at least he could tell me he regretted bullying Mother so much, not make excuses for himself by ranting about how Iran actually deserved being bullied by the English. It was the wrong time for that sort of self-serving history lesson; I had had quite enough of English bullying at the boarding school, and none of it was deserved.
That first day in London, the two Iranians who drove me from the airport turned me over to the schoolma’am. She was waiting on the stone steps of an archway leading to the main building. A humid breeze was picking up as the summer evening approached, but there was still enough daylight to get a view of the grounds. The main school building was an over bearing multi-story stone and brick structure with complicated windows, doorways and turrets. The rest of the complex was composed of several layers of architecture going as far back as Gothic and as far forward as the WW II barrack hut on the edge of the huge lawn area. Beyond the hut there was a soccer field, and on the other side of the grass a line of tall domestic trees merged into the wild woods.
For a few minutes after my Iranian guardians left, the scent of men’s cologne mingled with the perfume wafting from the courtyard rose bushes. When the cologne was gone, I was truly among the British, unprotected, with only a meager life experience of eleven years matched against an ancient empire of duplicity and deceit.
Continue to Part 3
From The Mullah With No Legs and Other Stories.