By Steve Horowitz
(1968-71, Maragheh, Rasht)
Someone once told me that if you are bored, there is no one to blame but yourself. Well, I take full responsibility for having had too little to do and not filling my first three months of excess free time in a brand new place with exciting activities. This place was bigger and more urban, and I had hoped to be busier with official work during this third year in Iran than I was during the previous two, but it just didn’t happen. I was forced to deal with another set of uncertain expectations and so I was faced with a vast sea of boredom- until I met a rather extraordinary person, that is.
To begin with, the Caspian area was unlike any other part of the country – wet, green, often lush. And, I found the people less friendly – although that was partly due to the contrast between small town and a regional capital. It was darker and woodier with more unpredictable weather. I was struggling with many personal issues, so I felt rather introspective and had little interest in going out to explore and meet new people as I had been directed to do. Instead, I pretty much waited inside until the night classes- for people screened by the local government – were set to begin.
One evening after class as I was gathering up my books and papers, a man walked in the room, introduced himself in flawless British-accented English as Khashayar, and asked about attending my class. I had no problem with that, but his command of the language seemed so far beyond the rest of the class that I told him I didn’t think he would benefit much. But he insisted it would be good for him, so I said fine.
It was after his second or third class that he told me what he really wanted: private lessons to help translate some Mark Twain stories he was interested in. He offered me a very attractive hourly stipend and invited me to join him for dinner after the lesson. We became friends and about two months later – after maintaining a regular schedule of two or three sessions per week – he finally admitted that the translations were for his girl friend’s master’s thesis. Of course, by then the work was all done, the money had changed hands, and neither of us seemed to care at all about rafting on the Mississippi or painting a picket fence.
Khashayar was a regional executive for the national oil company. He had studied in Scotland for a number of years and not long after returning to Iran, his connections and background landed him his current job. Life was very comfortable for him – huge salary, lots of prestige, and many perqs. such as the freedom to establish his own work schedule and a car and driver at his command. But like me he was bored. Fortunately our friendship went a long way towards relieving a good deal of it. His work required regular trips in his chauffeured company car to oil installations throughout the Caspian region. Going alone was dreadfully boring for him. Having a companion brought some life to the trip and gave me an opportunity not only to visit places I would not otherwise get to, but also to be lavishly wined and dined ( vodka-ed and feasted) by every town. I spoke the language pretty well and didn’t look dramatically unlike people from that part of the country, so he said not to worry about being a foreigner – they’ll never know: we’ll speak Farsi and they’ll assume you are from some other part of Iran. And that’s exactly what happened. In fact, they were so concerned about impressing Khashyar and receiving a good evaluation from him, and probably some other unstated oil company benefits, that they never paid much attention to me. They just kept pouring the vodka and bringing out the huge platters of delicious food.
The rich green countryside was amazing after several years of the dry, rocky khaki colored hillsides and plains of the rest of the country. The tea plantations, orange groves, thatched houses and flowing water were magical and almost unbelievable – more like the British Isles than the Middle East.
One day after a typical royal treatment in some small town with an oil company office, Khashyar suggested we go right up to the Russian border. Now it is important to keep in mind that this was during the Cold War. Both sides of the border were lined with watch towers. The only difference was the Iranian towers were empty; the Russian towers were all manned, with high-powered binoculars and machine guns aimed at the Iranian side. He and I were the only ones who knew I was American. And Khashayar didn’t know – and may not have cared – that there had been an incident a year or two earlier in which a Peace Corps Volunteer had been arrested by the Russians in another part of the Caspian region after he crossed the middle of the river borderline, claiming he got disoriented. The Russians accused him of spying. It was only pressure from the US on the Shah to resolve the situation that ultimately cut his jail term short.
I didn’t know exactly what Khashayar had in mind as we pass through checkpoint after checkpoint. The soldiers would stop us, glance in the car, acknowledge Khashayar with a salute, and wave us on. Up went the bar and we moved closer to the actual border. I was getting more apprehensive about this, but Khashayar thought the whole things was one big prank – and maybe he’d had a few more vodkas than I’d had. Finally, up ahead the last checkpoint then the bridge. As a few trucks crossed in the distance, I could make out the dividing line at the halfway point with a sign USSR – written in both languages- facing us. Through the final checkpoint, we pulled over near the foot of the bridge. I was hesitant. Come on let’s go to Russia, he urged with a laugh. No traffic moving at that moment. Are you sure this is OK, I asked him. Don’t worry. I’ve been here before.
Slowly we strolled toward the halfway point- the border. Iran, a US ally, Russia, the USSR, the adversary. Two solitary figures now being watched by guards in a least two towers. I casually aimed my glance upward and could sense some movement in the nearest watchtower. Spy movies, international incidents, denials of wrong doing swirled in my head. Was I overreacting?
We were still in Iran, only a few feet from the line. Let’s go to Russia, he implored with a huge grin on his face. He stepped across and did a little mock tap-dance. Come on! I decided not to look up – What were they doing with those machine guns? Over the line together, we danced around for a few minutes. I couldn’t imagine what anyone on either side was thinking. Khashayar didn’t care. He had found total relief for his boredom and, I guess, so had I.