Among the Believers

Sadeq was to go with me from Tehran to the Holy city of Qom, a hundred miles to the south. I hadn't met Sadeq; everything had been arranged on the telephone. I needed an Iranian interpreter, and Sadeq's name had been given to me by someone from an embassy.

Sadeq was free because, like many Iranians since the revolution, he had found himself out of a job. He had a car. When we spoke on the telephone he said it would be better for us to drive to Qom in his car; Iranian buses were dreadful and could be driven at frightening speeds by people who didn't really care.

We fixed a price for his car, his driving, his interpretation; and what he asked for was reasonable. He said we should start as soon as possible the next morning, to avoid the heat of the August day. He would take his wife to her office—she still had a job—and come straight on to the hotel. I should be ready at 7:30.

He came some minutes before eight. He was in his late twenties, small and carefully dressed, handsome, with a well-barbered head of hair. I didn't like him. I saw him as a man of simple origins, simply educated, but with a great sneering pride, deferential but resentful, not liking himself for what he was doing. He was the kind of man who, without political doctrine, with only resentments, had made the Iranian revolution. It would have been interesting to talk to him for an hour or two; it was going to be hard to be with him for some days, as I had now engaged myself to be.

He was smiling, but he had bad news for me. He didn't think his car could make it to Qom.

I didn't believe him. I thought he had simply changed his mind.

I said, "The car was your idea. I wanted to go by the bus. What happened between last night and now?"

"The car broke down."

"Why didn't you telephone me before you left home? If you had telephoned, we could have caught the eight o'clock bus. Now we've missed that."

"The car broke down after I took my wife to work. Do you really want to go to Qom today?"

"What's wrong with the car?"

"If you really want to go to Qom we can take a chance with it. Once it starts it's all right. The trouble is to get it started."

We went to look at the car. It was suspiciously well parked at the side of the road not far from the hotel gate. Sadeq sat in the driver's seat. He called out to a passing man, one of the many idle workmen of Tehran, and the man and I began to push. A young man with a briefcase, possibly an office worker on his way to work, came and helped without being asked. The road was dug-up and dusty; the car was very dusty. It was hot; the exhausts of passing cars and trucks made it hotter. We pushed now with the flow of the traffic, now against it; and all the time Sadeq sat serenely at the steering wheel.

People from the pavement came and helped for a little, then went about their business. It occurred to me that I should also be going about mine. This—pushing Sadeq's car back and forth—wasn't the way to get to Qom; what had begun so unpromisingly wasn't going to end well. So, without telling anybody anything then or afterward, I left Sadeq and his car and his volunteer pushers and walked back to the hotel.

I telephoned Behzad. Behzad had also been recommended to me as an interpreter. But there had been some trouble in finding him—he was a student footloose in the great city of Tehran; and when the previous evening he had telephoned me, I had already closed with Sadeq. I told Behzad now that my plans had fallen through. He made no difficulties—and I liked him for that. He said he was still-free, and would be with me in an hour.

He didn't think we should take a car to Qom. The bus was cheaper, and I would see more of the Iranian people. He also said that I should eat something substantial before leaving. It was Ramadan, the month when Moslems fast from sunrise to sunset; and in Qom, the city of mullahs and ayatollahs, it wasn't going to be possible to eat or drink. In some parts of the country—with the general Islamic excitement—people had been whipped for breaking the fast.

Behzad's approach, even on the telephone, was different from Sadeq's. Sadeq, a small man on the rise, and perhaps only a step or two above being a peasant, had tried to suggest that he was above the general Iranian level. But he wasn't, really; there was a lot of the Iranian hysteria and confusion locked up in his smiling eyes. Behzad, explaining his country, claiming it all, managed to sound more objective.

When, at the time he had said, we met in the lobby of the hotel, I at once felt at ease with him. He was younger, taller, darker than Sadeq. He was more educated; there was nothing of the dandy about him, nothing of Sadeq's nervousness and raw pride.

We went by line taxi—a city taxi operating along fixed routes—to the bus station in south Tehran. North Tehran—spreading up into the brown hills, hills that faded in the daytime haze— was the elegant part of the city; that was where the parks and gardens were, the planelined boulevards, the expensive apartment blocks, the hotels and the restaurants. South Tehran was still an Eastern city, more populous and cramped, more bazaar—like, full of people who had moved in from the countryside; and the crowd in the dusty, littered yard of the bus station was like a country crowd.

Somebody in a grimy little office told Behzad that there was a bus for Qom in half an hour. The bus in bundles on the roof, no patient peasants waiting outside or stewing inside. That bus looked parked for the day. I didn't believe it was going to leave in half an hour; neither did Behzad. There was another bus service from Tehran, though, one that offered air-conditioned buses and reserved seats. Behzad looked for a telephone, found coins, telephoned, got no reply. The August heat had built up; the air was full of dust.

A line taxi took us to the other terminal, which was in central Tehran. Boards above a long counter gave the names of remote Iranian towns; there was even a daily service, through Turkey, to Europe. But the morning bus to Qom had gone; there wouldn't be another for many hours. It was now near noon. There was nothing for us to do but to go back to the hotel and think again.

We walked; the line taxis had no room. The traffic was heavy. Tehran, since the revolution, couldn't be said to be a city at work; but people had cars, and the idle city—so many projects abandoned, so many unmoving cranes on the tops of unfinished buildings—could give an impression of desperate busyness.

The desperation was suggested by the way the Iranians drove. They drove like people to whom the motorcar was new. They drove as they walked; and a stream of Tehran traffic, jumpy with individual stops and swerves, with no clear lanes, was like a jostling pavement crowd. This manner of driving didn't go with any special Tehran luck. The door or fender of every other car was bashed in, or bashed in and mended. An item in a local paper (blaming the Shah for not having given the city a more modern road system) had said that traffic accidents were the greatest single cause of deaths in Tehran; two thousand people were killed or injured every month.

We came to an intersection. And there I lost Behzad. I was waiting for the traffic to stop. But Behzad didn't wait with me. He simply began to cross, dealing with each approaching car in turn, now stopping, now hurrying, now altering the angle of his path, and, like a man crossing a forest gorge by a slender fallen tree trunk, never looking back. He did so only when he got to the other side. He waved me over, but I couldn't move. Traffic lights had failed higher up, and the cars didn't stop.

He understood my helplessness. He came back through the traffic to me, and then—like a moorhen leading its chick across the swift current of a stream—he led me through dangers that at every moment seemed about to sweep me away. He led me by the hand; and, just as the moorhen places herself a little downstream from the chick, breaking the force of the current, which would otherwise sweep the little thing away forever, so Behzad kept me in his lee, walking a little ahead of me and a little to one side, so that he would have been hit first.

And when we were across the road he said, "You must always give your hand to me."

It was, in effect, what I had already begun to do. Without Behzad, without the access to the language that he gave me, I had been like a half-blind man in Tehran. And it had been especially frustrating to be without the language in these streets, scrawled and counter-scrawled with aerosol slogans in many colors in the flowing Persian script, and plastered with revolutionary posters and cartoons with an emphasis on blood. Now, with Behzad, the walls spoke; many other things took on meaning; and the city changed.

Behzad had at first seemed neutral in his comments, and I had thought that this was part of his correctness, his wish not to go beyond his function as a translator. But Behzad was neutral because he was confused. He was a revolutionary and he welcomed the overthrow of the Shah; but the religious revolution that had come to Iran was not the revolution that Behzad wanted. Behzad was without religious faith.

How had that happened? How, in a country like Iran, and growing up in a provincial town, had he learned to do without religion? It was simple, Behzad said. He hadn't been instructed in the faith by his parents; he hadn't been sent to the mosque. Islam was a complicated religion. It wasn't philosophical or speculative. It was a revealed religion, with a Prophet and a complete set of rules. To believe, it was necessary to know a lot about the Arabian origins of the religion, and to take this knowledge to heart.

Islam in Iran was even more complicated. It was a divergence from the main belief; and this divergence had its roots in the political-racial dispute about the succession to the Prophet, who died in 632 A.D. Islam, almost from the start, had been an imperialism as well as a religion, with an early history remarkably like a speeded—up version of the history of Rome, developing from city state to peninsular overlord to empire, with corresponding stresses at every stage. The Iranian divergence had become doctrinal, and there had been divergences within the divergence. Iranians recognized a special line of succession to the Prophet. But a group loyal to the fourth man in this Iranian line, the fourth Imam, had hived off; another group had their own ideas about the seventh. Only one Imam, the eighth (poisoned, like the fourth), was buried in Iran; and his tomb, in Mashhad, not far from the Russian border, was an object of pilgrimage.

"A lot of those people were killed or poisoned," Behzad said, as though explaining his lack of belief.

Islam in Iran, Shia Islam, was an intricate business. To keep alive ancient animosities, to hold on to the idea of personal revenge even after a thousand years, to have a special list of heroes and martyrs and villains, it was necessary to be instructed. And Behzad hadn't been instructed; he had simply stayed away. He had, if anything, been instructed in disbelief by his father, who was a communist. It was of the poor rather than of the saints that Behzad's father had spoken. The memory that Behzad preserved with special piety was of the first day his father had spoken to him about poverty—his own poverty, and the poverty of others.

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