I’ve known for a long time that the real reason I write this blog is to make meaning for myself.
I tend to look for subjects in which I suspect there may be some unexplored sub-text – unexplored by me, that is. This week the revelation of Pope John Paul’s correspondence with his married lady philosopher friend felt like fertile ground. But it also had the whiff of hard labour about it, and rather too late in the day I discarded it.
Instead, I found myself thinking of the TV documentary the other day about the Shah of Iran’s unprecedentedly lavish (and substantially bogus) celebration of the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire, at the ancient site of Persepolis, in 1971. It summons an experience from my student days, though whether there’s any particular meaning in the story, I’m not sure.
I had been to Persepolis two years previously, in 1969. It was my first summer at university and four of us had driven from the UK to Iran in a VW camper van. An Iranian student friend, Fari, had invited us to stay with her in Tehran and to visit the family house on the Caspian Sea, if we could get ourselves out there.
Alas, while we were en route and in those internet- and mobile phone-free days incommunicado, her father died. When we arrived in Tehran, a couple of adventurous months after leaving London, it was to find the large family in mourning and four travel-stained British students very obviously surplus to requirements.
We found a cheap hotel in downtown Tehran where we stayed for several days while waiting for money to arrive from the UK – and memorably watched the live coverage of the first moon landing on a fuzzy black-and-white television, with commentary in Farsi.
One of my travelling companions had a roundabout connection with a niece of the Shah, who was studying in London, and he had managed to get hold of her phone number. Since we were kicking our heels, he brazenly rang her and to our amazement and slight horror we were invited to spend the evening with her and her parents, the Shah’s older sister, Princess Shams Pahlavi, and her diplomat husband, Mehrdad Pahlbod.
We fished our best clothes from the bottom of our bags, where they had been languishing since leaving London, and did what we could to spruce ourselves up. At the appointed hour a driver appeared at our hotel and we set off – but not in the direction we had thought we would be going. The Shah’s palace was in the northern part of the city, the cooler, uphill part. We seemed to be heading west in the deepening dusk and out into the desert.
The driver spoke not one word of English. The road was unlit. We had no idea where we were going, and after three-quarters of an hour were beginning to think we were being abducted, when floodlights pierced the darkness and a high security fence came into view. We passed through a gate manned by armed guards and into the spacious grounds of a low, sprawling, futuristic-looking building – which we later learned had been recently commissioned by the princess at vast expense from architects of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. At that time the Pearl Palace, as it was called, was still only partly complete although in the darkness we were unaware of that.
Having first been relieved of our shoes and issued with carpet slippers, we were ushered into a large open-plan reception room where Princess Shams, dressed in white and clasping to her bosom a white poodle, reclined on a chaise longue. She greeted us politely and in halting English. Then her husband stepped forward and in perfect English quizzed us about our journey, before introducing us to the younger generation, our contemporaries. This was the jeunesse dorée of Iranian society and we were four scruffy, long-haired British students, yet I remember that they treated us charmingly and the conversation seemed to flow easily as we were served soft drinks and snacks.
After an hour or so, without warning the lights in the room dimmed. There was a whirring noise and out of the floor rose a large cinema screen. We settled down to watch a full-length showing of Funny Girl, the musical featuring Barbara Streisand, which had recently been released in the UK. Following the screening there was more food and drink and more pleasantries, before we were informed that our car was ready, we said our farewells and were driven back to Tehran.
It remains by a long way the most surreal evening I have ever spent. We had been camping solidly for two months before arriving in Tehran, cooking Vesta curries and other revolting packet meals on a gas camping stove, bathing in rivers and sleeping alternate nights in a small tent or on the van’s bench seats. Yet for those few hours, that evening, we were in the private home of one of the world’s wealthiest women whose younger brother was at that moment one of the world’s most powerful men.
Ten years later they had all fled the revolution, never to return to Iran. Our university friend Fari was not so lucky. Back with her family in Tehran and trapped by the mullahs, it was several years before she was able to leave and pick up her life in England again.