Revolutionary Ride: On the Road to find the Real Iran
© 2017 Lois Pryce
It was a note from a stranger that took her to Iran, a request from a Habib of Shiraz that she one day visit his home city, to meet the Iran that is not mentioned on the news. Although the idea of visiting a state where western visitors are often imprisoned as spies wasn’t immediately attractive, the timing seemed propitious: President Rouhani was then meeting with the United Nations, and the JCPOA was taking shape. So, donning a hijab over her hair and hopping aboard the Trans-Orient Express, Lois headed for a nation that proved to be as complex as it did ancient, there to meet extraordinary people, see a landscape which has inspired poetry for centuries, and tell the state police to f- off.
Because in recent years Iran’s state department has limited Anglo-American travels to guided tours, Pyrce unwittingly became one of the last few Britons to ever travel the nation independently. Pyrce brought to her exploration a gung-ho spirit, cheerfully setting forth despite her unfamiliarity with not only the Persian language, but its alphabet. This forced her to seek the aide of those around her, who proved more than willing. Though not knowing what to expect of Iran once she arrived – what would they make of this foreign woman driving an illicit motorbike by herself all over the place? — Pyrce found herself welcomed, if not with open arms (touching makes the supreme leader cry), with welcome smiles and embarrassing hospitality. The Iranian people’s warmth toward visitors, as recorded in other travel memoirs, is especially well on display here, as Pyrce is treated to meals and given rooms in households over her protestations. Those welcoming her are not just disaffected liberals, young dissidents or old rebels; they include the conservative and respectable as well as the hip or humble.
Iran, Pyrce found, is a land of contradictions, too complex for easy summation. Even the individual people she encountered were often unpredictable – the leg-less general, a severe-looking survivor of the Imposed War (Iranians’ name for Iraq’s invasion of Iran that consumed much of a decade), who nevertheless sang to her with a sparkle in his eye, or a young secularist who never the less had a mystic’s appreciation for his heritage. No one Pyrce broke bread or quaffed an illicit drink with had a kind word to say about the Islamic Republic; many waxed nostalgic over the memory of the Shah, whose abuses of power inspired both a revolution and the hostage crisis of ‘79 – ‘81. Most, however, found ways to make life in the regime tolerable: after decades of various prohibitions, there exists a thriving countereconomy, of covert satellite TV installers, suppliers of ardent spirits and forbidden DVDs, and so on. Although the mullahs’ bullying control over the people has earned them rage and contempt, Pyce learns that its enforcers are often actively involved in the import of goods that the mullahs have banned – a tidy “baptists and bootleggers” racket. The sanctions imposed by the outside world may stress and ruin ordinary families, but the government’s agents make a pretty penny through the resultant smuggling.
Virtually all of Pryce’s experiences in Iran (about a month and a half of motorbiking) were positive, save some run-ins with government toughs who wanted to throw their weight around; Pryce’s instincts as to who she could trust or avoid were generally accurate, though she did have a bad encounter with one meth-addled man on a lonely highway between Isfahan and Shiraz. Pryce’s journeys around Persia take us to the great commercial centers of the Safavid age, to the teeming and chaotic capital of Tehran, and to the ancient imperial seat of power, Persepolis. Enroute Pryce touches on various parts of Iranian history and culture – the role of Shiism and Iran’s embrace of its focus on martyrdom; the checkered legacy of the Shah, and Iran’s troubled history with the west, particularly England and America. The book is thereful doubly useful for those who know nothing of Iran; for me, her dialogue with so many people was a welcome reminder of our common humanity, despite the differences of culture and the conflicts promoted by politicians. When states divide people, it is up to the ordinary man and woman to reach through barriers and find the us in the other.
Neither East nor West, Christine Bird. Another account of a woman traveling solo throughout Iran, this time in the 1990s; the Islamic Republic enjoys more tepid support here than in Pyrce’s time. Bird, as well as Niall Doherty and Pyrce, confirms how warm Iranians are to visitors.