When I graduated from Cal in 1967 I decided I wanted to see some of the world, and in September I flew on a special student charter from Oakland to London. I think it cost about $120. The next day I took a ferry to France and hitchhiked down to Munich for the Oktoberfest.
I met some Englishmen there, drinking beer at the Hofbrauhaus, and they told me about a trip they were going to take to Tehran. It was a caravan of used Mercedes’ that some Iranian smugglers were shipping there by road. If you drove one of these cars from Munich to Tehran you could make $100, plus a bus ticket back to Istanbul or on to Kabul, Afghanistan. They said these Iranians were just businessmen avoiding import duties. I would be the registered owner of my Mercedes, and once in Tehran I’d transfer title to an Iranian.
It all made a certain amount of sense, and after asking about it at the American embassy I decided to go. There seven cars in all, and we drove through southern Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to Turkey.
Bulgaria was just as backward as Turkey, but there was a definite difference between them. In Bulgaria, even though it was a communist dictatorship, it seemed familiar somehow, like you were still in part of Europe. Once we got into Turkey, I felt like I was in an alien culture, something completely different.
We had to kill some time in Tehran while the title was being transferred, and we stayed in some youth hostel in the Shoosh. This was in the southern, low rent part of the city, where you had to watch your step.
I went to the Grand Bazaar in the middle of town to see what I could see. It was all new to me, and I liked just wandering around. I guess I stood out, wearing a nice Pendleton wool shirt, which a couple merchants offered to buy from me.
A young Iranian guy introduced himself to me, and offered to show me around town. He spoke good English, and worked as a translator of foreign films which were shown in Iran. We went up to the northern, more prosperous part of the city, and he showed me the American embassy, among other things.
We went into a little beer hall of some sort, and had a couple beers. They were playing popular Iranian music, and I was surprised how good it was. One song, in particular, I remember. It was some sort of love song, sung my a woman with a beautiful, exotic voice.
There were a couple of young women at a table across the room, and one of them was very attractive. We started looking at each other, and my Iranian friend said that was very unusual. Iranian girls weren’t easy.
He explained the native religion of Iran, which was Zoroastrianism. It was sort of an ecological religion, in which there was a natural balance between water, fire, earth and air. It sounded like a reasonable way to look at the world.
Twelve years later the Shah was overthrown, and Iran hasn’t been the same. Sometimes I wonder what happened to my Iranian friend, and that beautiful girl.
Iranians aren’t Arabs, and the Moslem religion was imposed on them by the sword. Not everyone in the Middle East is either fanatical Shia or Sunni. There is a civilized underground in Iran even today, and we should give it all the encouragement we can.
Michael Ledeen knows a lot more about Iran than I do, and in this article he gives reason for hope. If the Iranian people ever returned to their real native culture, it would be truly revolutionary.