Seismic Anomaly

by Graeme Wood

Christopher Hitchens's call for pre-emptive earthquake aid to the Islamic Republic of Iran brings back a rush of numb memories.  I was in Iran after the Bam earthquake of 2003, and I hitchhiked immediately to the earthquake zone, packing in food and water to avoid getting in the way of the last rescue efforts.

Even in war, I have never seen such wreckage.  Most of the shops seemed to have buckled in the same way: their concrete side walls toppled together to the left or the right, and the heavy slab of the roof slammed down on whatever was inside.  During the afternoon I walked around the Citadel of Bam, formerly a vast adobe labyrinth, now thoroughly pulverized.  It looked as if a giant had inserted a pestle into the mortar-bowl of the Citadel, and just stirred and ground away until nothing was left.

Bam's temblor killed only 26,000 people.  Hitchens points out that Tehran is built over a crisscross of faults, and that a quake as strong as the one in Haiti could kill a million.  After Bam, all Iranians had a fresh reminder that the Big One would hit Tehran soon enough.  Which made me wonder: why does anyone still live there? Why not consider moving to a less seismically precarious place, or at least to more durable housing?  I never got a satisfactory answer, although one hotel clerk did say offhandedly that Iranians were familiar with the experience of being promised big changes -- positive or negative -- and that the threat of an earthquake sounded a lot like yet another vision of change that would be infinitely postponed.