Nomads(4)-“You Must Taking Bus; You Must Going To The Tehran!”(sic)

Standing by the roadside in the early morning, a short distance from the Turkey/Iran border post, attempting to avoid the intermittent rain which had followed us across the border, we were joined after some time by an Israeli hitchhiker who had just crossed from Turkey, following the opening of the border in the morning. (The border was closed at night – see Nomads 3) After what seemed like a long wait, a German VW camper pulled up and offered us all a lift to Tehran.

Their van unfortunately broke down just after the first town, and the couple driving reluctantly decided to abandon their journey – although the journey we then had to Tehran, as a result, was probably the more eventful for that.

English language newspaper from late October 1978

While trying to get a lift further on from that very same spot where we had been dropped, we soon attracted a largish crowd of young children who would shriek with delight and immediately surround any car that was brave enough to stop for us, whereupon the driver would race off again before we could even speak to them. Eventually one stopped with two young men in it who seemed to be made of sterner stuff, because they ordered the children away and waited for us to come to the window, and did indeed pick us up.

They were soldiers, going on holiday to the Caspian Sea, who spoke quite good English, which was lucky, because Mike and I had nothing to offer but a smattering of Turkish. They took us to Tabriz, the first big city on our route – and the centre, apparently, of the Persian carpet business – where they bought us dinner and paid for us to stay the night at a local hotel. Such kindness from complete strangers has often been a feature of our lives as wandering musicians.

And on the other side of the coin – a little further down the road we got a lift from two men describing themselves as businessmen. A friendly enough rapport seemed to have developed, but things took a turn for the worse when we got out. Attempting to retrieve our bags and instruments from the boot where they had been stowed, we found the boot-lid difficult to open, and were met by a series of gestures from the chaps, who were saying what sounded like “pull”.

As the lid still refused to open, it slowly dawned on us that it was in fact locked, and that our erstwhile friends were demanding money from us to open it! Their devilish scheme was however thwarted by a taxi driver parked nearby, who noticed what was going on and made some threat which resulted in them opening the boot-lid and giving us back our bags in a hurry! (Many years later, I made the remarkable discovery that what they actually must have been saying was “pul”, an Azerbajani word meaning “money”.)

A poem by Bongo Mike, written in the Street Poetry style, but never published

Then there was the meeting with an enthusiastic young boy in one village situated en route, who introduced himself like this, “Heart, I am Iran. Mother Turkish. Understand English!”, and then proceeded to show us round the village. As we walked down a narrow path, we passed what our friend told us was a school; we were carrying our instruments with us and as we walked by, another boy came running out of the school, saying to our friend, apparently, that the teachers, who it seemed had observed us on the pathway, wanted to know where we were from, and if we would play some music for the children.

We agreed, and as we walked through the school gate into the playground the children came bursting out of their classrooms, milling – or rather swarming – round, before settling down into a large circle around us on benches which the teachers brought out, listening with rapt attention to our song “I am the Professor of the University of the Street”, and some few others. When we were finished the teachers spoke for some time with us, and gave us some money. (Our second impromptu gig, following the brief concert at the border post.)

Our young guide in fact spoke rather little English, but we understood him, even if more by the context than the words he used; a couple of times, for example, politely holding a door open for us to walk through, he would say, “Please Mister, take my seat”. He took us to a park where an old man was sitting by a pond, reading a story to some small children. As we left the park some other children in the distance, larger and rather aggressive, threw stones at us: “from next village”, he told us. “You must taking bus; you must going to the Tehran”, he added, “boys village, fifteen hundred good, fifteen hundred bad”.

A postcard from my father, from Tehran in the 1960’s. He was abroad much of the year with his work, which took him to many of the same places that I later visited as a wandering street musician

We took his advice, and arrived in a Tehran which seemed relatively peaceful, if a little tense. The most memorable first impression was the double-decker Leyland buses, which seemed to have been exported from UK minus the safety warning about no standing-passengers on the upper deck! An attempt at busking in a park in the centre of town drew a large crowd round us, which was then dispersed by truncheon-wielding police, who contented themselves with kicking our guitar case when they saw that the centre of attraction was only two hippies playing some music. (The more things change… we really felt quite at home!)

An artisan at work in Isfahan in a more peaceful time

News about the political situation did of course filter through to us, and our initial reaction, after a week or two of familiarizing ourselves with the city, was to proceed through to Pakistan before things got too hot! We took a coach to Isfahan, but the atmosphere in that city, beautiful though it would clearly have been in other circumstances, was very disturbing. We felt vulnerable walking round the streets with our instruments and bags, not understanding the language and sensing hostility to strangers, and felt greatly relieved when a young man approached us and asked if we were looking for a hotel. Answering in the affirmative, we followed him and found ourselves in the Mihan Tour Inn, a small hotel run by a bus company of the same name – Mihan Tours.

We got a safe bed for the night, and a chance to weigh up the pro’s and con’s of our situation.

If we carried on our journey now, we might well get through to safety; the route, as people told us, was straightforward by coach – Kerman, Zahedan, Pakistan.

But there was a distinct possibility that the return journey by land would be anything but straightforward, by the time we were ready to make it, given the signs of civil unrest we had already witnessed. And we didn’t have the resources – as others might – simply to take a plane back to London from wherever we ended up.

We weren’t, after all, sponsored adventurers, but travelling musicians who had got caught up, rather late in the day, in the “India by land” trip; and furthermore, we had our own dispute with authority – in the UK and to a lesser extent in much of western Europe – which we were arguably running away from by immersing ourselves in the fashionable, collective adventure of the times.

So in the end there was only one sensible decision we could make….. Back to Tehran. With Mihan Tours. And then back to our own war in the West.

The song “Goodbye Winepress Street”, though not of course about Iran, does perhaps reflect the same spirit as that in which we made our exit from Iran back in 1978 – being a statement of our feeling that as artists there was no real satisfaction in following any pursuit but that of our own artistic calling.


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