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Warm waters
Family vacation in Bushehr, 1970

By Cyrus Kadivar
September 4, 2002
The Iranian

When I was barely eight-years old my parents took my brother and I on a little adventure. We were going to dip our feet in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf. It was the spring of 1970. My father, a surgeon at Nemazi Hospital in Shiraz, was behind the wheel and my French mother beside him listening to Gogoosh singing on the Persian radio.

I was in the back of the Opel with my five-year-old brother staring out of the open window. The seat leather stuck uncomfortably to my bare legs already covered in red mosquito bites.

We had just left town with a parting glance at the distant cypress spires, the scattered gardens, and the bulbous cupolas of the mosques.

The road from Shiraz to Bushehr -- made during the First World War whilst the British occupied southern Persia -- had long been asphalted. In the days of Lord Curzon and Merritt-Hawkes, both renowned travellers in Persia, the journey used to take ten to seventeen days by caravan. But during my childhood it was a good day's trip in a car. Even today I still recall the trip with sentimental pleasure.

As we travelled along the westerly corner of the Shiraz valley we marvelled at the brown mud-huts of obscure villages, mounted Qashqai tribesmen preparing their people and flock for the annual spring migration. Eight miles later we crossed a slender stream by an old bridge and passed a number of abandoned caravanserai on the road.

Miles of telegraph poles put up by the British stretched across the desert. Somewhere along this same road in 1871 a certain Corporal Collins of the Royal Engineers and one of the original staff of the Telegraph Department had been attacked and killed by bandits while travelling with his wife and attendants. His murderers had eventually been caught by the Persian Governor and buried alive in pillars of mud. I learned about this many years later in Curzon's Persia.

The crumbling white forts now littering the mountain sides belonged to a time when Reza Shah's gendarmerie had to fight the brigands who held up cars and lorries bringing tea, sugar, gold and cotton goods from the unloading ships in Bushehr. We stopped the car and climbed a hill to examine a derelict fort made of chalk and stones.

On the horizon poppy fields danced in the wind and cheerful peasant girls handpicked lavender and wild flowers. Soon we were in the village of Dasht-e Arjan clustered against the base of the northern hills, and immediately outside it was the compound of the telegraph office.

Before our departure we had been told by our self-appointed guide, Mr Djami, a blue-eyed postman at Pahlavi University, to look out for this building. Mr Djami was a kind and intriguing man in short-sleeves who resembled an English colonel with his neatly combed red hair and trimmed moustache. He was a Bushehri and very proud of it.

The people of Bushehr have a reputation of being honest and sincere, so my father had believed his story that the maneless lions of southern Iran still roamed the hills. We saw no lions of course. However according to Curzon's account, an Englishman by the name of St. John was attacked by a lioness in 1867 while ascending the mountain passes on horseback and survived to tell the tale.

Now began the hair-raising road twists that was to take us from the Kotal Dokhtar down to the Kotal Pir Zan. These kotals, or mountain passes, were notorious for the lives it claimed each year as car accidents were a regular occurrence. In the valley below one could still see the remains of smashed vehicles and skeletons of mules and horses.

As the locals will tell you anyone who travels along the two-mile long Daughter's Pass ends up at the Old Woman's Pass after descending 7,400 feet. At the bottom of the kotal lay the plain of Kazerun.

In those days Kazerun was a small, well-favoured spot, agreeable and healthy in climate, rich in water, and famous both for its oranges and its mules. Before entering the town we drove beside the beautiful but now extinct Lake Parishan. Hundreds of geese rose gloriously from their swampy feeding-grounds, their clamorous flight resounding in our ears.

We stayed the night in a shabby hotel in Kazerun. In the morning, after a light breakfast consisting of goat cheese, bread and tea, we visited a garage to replace a deflated tire before a brief tour of the Shapour Cave.

The road from Borazjun to Bushehr was a long and hot one. A good many sand-grouse were visible on the way. At times a mirage trembled before us giving frequent glimpses of a sea that seemed to recede in front of our car. Finally after what felt like an endless trek, we felt the temperature rising and spotted something very flat: land.

Bushehr is situated upon a ledge of sandy conglomerate stone facing the sea and on a map it juts out like a shark's fin into the Persian Gulf.

Unlike Shiraz, the air in this shabby peninsular port was humid and the town a collection of reed huts, dull alleyways, a few solidly built buildings along the waterfront, and houses with tall chimneys for capturing the breeze known as badgers. Down on the shore, in the orange light of a setting sun, young fishermen were dragging in their nets.

Our accommodation for the night turned out to be two purpose-built villas in a large half-finished medical compound dotted with palm trees.

The rooms had been carpeted and furnished with beds and lamps. Mr Djami had thoughtfully seen to it that we were provided with mattresses, blankets and pillows for the night. Next door to us was Dr Zabihi, an orthopaedic surgeon, his tall English wife Jill (a teacher at the Shiraz International Community School), and their three daughters Kim, Karen and Tracy. They had travelled with us in a jeep.

No sooner had we unpacked that we noticed the weather had changed dramatically.

The sky over Bushehr had darkened. Nobody had warned us about the creeping storm. Gale winds struck our windows with stunning ferocity, tearing down trees and scaffoldings. Terrified we stayed inside.

Suddenly the power supplies in the entire compound went down plunging our villa in darkness. We huddled around candles listening to rattling windows, opening a can of sardines for dinner. It rained all night.

In the morning, after a heavy sleep, we joined the Zabihis and Mr Djami for breakfast at a nearby hotel. On the sunny veranda of the Pahlavi Hotel a big table had been laid out with fresh bread, sabzi and eggs.

Everything was calm, including the sea, and it was hard to believe that there had ever been a storm the previous night. From our vantage point facing the Persian Gulf we could see the small promenade around the Shah's statue where a few tourists were waving at us.

Being a curious child my eyes scanned the blue waters and to my delight I spotted a sting-ray. Until our trip to Bushehr I had never been close to the sea-shore and I felt at awe by the gentle waves; running away from it as soon as it surrounded my ankles. I spent the time searching for crabs, picking seashells and playing in the sand with my brother. Kim and Karen would often run up to us and kick our sand castles to the ground.

Later in the day Mr Djami took us to the local bazaar. It was decorated with flowers and long strings of dried yellow dates festooned across the shops. Pictures of Empress Farah were notably displayed on the walls for the nation had been informed that she was expecting her fourth child.

The smell of dried prawns and shrimps mingled with that of rosewater creating an awful stench. Men with proud, aristocratic faces, beards dyed with henna mingled with gold-teethed women covered in saris.

My European mother looked out of place in her summer clothes and large sunglasses as she walked cautiously through the alleyways.

In the old town the houses were full of character with latticed glass windows, arched balconies, sturdy wooden doors with metal studs and carved jambs. Occasionally we were shown traces of Portuguese and English influence. The British Residency had long vanished.

One evening we toured a naval base in Bushehr, one of several locations where the Shah had his fleet. In those days there was much talk about Iranian claims on Bahrain and the British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf.

It seemed as if millions of tiny light bulbs were hanging from every tree and building. Crowds of people walked or danced to bandari drums.

Officers of the Imperial Iranian Navy dressed in their splendid white uniforms stood proudly on the decks of their destroyers and frigates.

One day we visited the newly opened hospital. A bright doctor who had graduated from Pahlavi Medical School in Shiraz explained how malaria was being eradicated in Bushehr thanks to the local Governor who had led a campaign to drain the marshes and vaccinate the population.

One afternoon we came across an eerie volcanic landscape with steam rising from the reddish rocks, prompting a vision of hell in my youthful imagination. On closer inspection a beautiful world appeared.

Nature had created a health spa with warm water springing from huge holes in the ground. Examining the subterranean holes I saw dozens of colourful fish swimming around in murky waters. In one hole I saw a large exotic fish with black zebra stripes, huge eyes and long, thin fins.

"Baba, come here," I shouted. My father knelt beside me and nodded.

"Let's see if we can catch one," he said. We lowered a small net and caught the fish placing it immediately in a bucket of water. At the hotel we pleaded with the manager to allow us to keep it in a nearby fountain.

The hotel manager agreed reluctantly and soon the fish was swimming merrily in the little fountain. Imagine the extreme distress I felt when that evening the chef presented my fish on a dinner plate.

Dr Zabihi was an amusing man with a great temper and a sense of bravado. A keen hunter he decided one day to try his hand in fishing. I was sitting on the beach with the other children when suddenly Dr Zabihi roared, "I've caught something!"

We ran over to him. "Is it a large fish?" I asked him timidly. Before he could answer Dr Zabihi lunged forward into the water. He was shaking and desperately holding on to the rod, pulling on the line and cursing.

Soon he was waist-deep in water and not giving up. My father rushed over to give him a hand and together they pulled until slowly and surly a giant creature the size of a small table came out of the sea.

We stood there under the beating sun with our mouths open wide, gaping at the sight of the huge turtle at the end of the hook. The poor reptile was bleeding from the corner of its mouth, its eyes flashing in pain.

There was a certain resignation written on the turtle's face which reminded me of an old Tangestani man I had seen earlier on his boat. Taking pity on the creature Dr Zabihi cut the line and the turtle marched back to the sea and disappeared beneath the blue waves.

A local fisherman in ragged trousers and a naked torso came up to my father and Dr Zabihi and volunteered to take them on his dhow for some deep sea fishing. As it turned out the expedition was a disaster.

After a few hours at sea watching dolphins jumping in the air they found themselves in another storm. The Persian Gulf is infested with sharks and nobody fancied going overboard. When they returned to tell us their story the gales had returned and we began to grow weary of Bushehr.

On our last day my father was rushed to the local hospital with a bleeding stomach ulcer and underwent a blood transfusion. When we visited him the following day we found him listening to the news on the radio.

That morning on 26th March 1970 Empress Farah had given birth to Princess Leila.

My father smiled at us but he looked drained. "Don't worry," he said reassuringly.

We returned to Shiraz in Dr Zabihi's jeep and my father was flown back in a helicopter and underwent a successful operation. In any case, the memories of those few days in Bushehr stayed with me for many years.

One summer day I persuaded my father to buy me an aquarium. In a shop on Daryoush Street we found what we needed. We bought a big tank and had it filled with water, gravel and a pump. A fish seller who turned out to be half-Iranian and half-German brought us a dozen exotic fishes which he threw into the tank with a tiny net.

Every night when I was not sleepy I would sneak out of bed and tip-toe to the living room and watch the fish swimming under the aquarium lights. Sometimes my father would join me and put his arms around me and recall that unforgettable trip to the warm waters of my country.

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