Or, Persian Pictures: Gabriele Basilico on the Road in Iran
Torn white shirts, imbrued with caked blood and sweat. Raised fists pumping with vehemence, and the howls of underdogs piercing through concrete halls and cracked, blinding avenues. The memory of the sun during that long hot autumn still weighed heavily on their minds, and their scorched brows and roughened hands wouldn’t let them, those street-fighting men and women, forget it. The butterflies had been let loose in London in memory of a wingless angel, and the last jagged nail had been driven home in the spartan coffin of a burnt-out dream. But they were young and hot-blooded yet; their eyes, though jaded and no longer sparkling with callow innocence, longed to see beyond those sleepy towns with their towering smokestacks, where death lay skulking in the shadows, breathing down necks and following in the footsteps of the dead-but-living. Ah, to be as free as a girl on a motorcycle, to ride out into the distance and watch the world shrink into nothingness behind you; and to keep riding, with no particular destination, chasing naught but the sun. The earth fetters only the feet of those who stand still, they thought; better to laugh at those sunken holes, to evade those cold fingers, and move. Happy those who die on the road, and not in their beds.
* * *
A dusty drawer opened with a creak; a drawer that for nearly half a century had lain shut and unnoticed, its contents seemingly frozen in time, although occasionally warmed by that same sun of ages past. Illumined by its soft rays, images appeared in myriad shades of black and white. Little girls emerged, clutching swarthy chadors in their tiny fingers. There were patterns of confounding beauty, in the palaces of kings, in hallowed spaces, in the shepherd’s flock, on the face of the earth itself. Grinning waifs, listless opium addicts, weary pedlars, and pilgrims lost in prayer inhabited a paradise of shadows and light, of visual poetry and perfect symmetry that at times seemed familiar, and at others, as distant as the dream that had brought those images into being.
With long unkempt locks, a sunburned face nestled in a beard, and a pair of greasy blue bellbottoms and sandals, Gabriele Basilico was a twenty-four-year-old architecture student when he and his friends decided to visit Iran. The year was 1970, and the plan was to venture far away from Milan, their studies, and the familiar, in search of a world less ordinary. Though studying architecture, Gabriele was slowly developing a penchant for photography. He knew, somehow, that the two cameras he always carried with him – one around his neck, and the other in his hand – would, like Giovanna, be with him until the very end. Ex Oriente lux, he thought whilst spinning around a globe, wondering where to go. He knew that all things had their beginning and end in the East, in the land of the rising sun. It was soon decided, therefore, that they would follow the flower-strewn spice route to faraway Kabul and Samarkand, to the realms of Zarathustra and Mani, of fire, light, and Persian blue.
And so it happened that one sunny morning on the coast of the Venetian Riviera, Gabriele and Giovanna set off in his father’s rickety Fiat 124 with little more than wanderlust and just enough to see them through to the other side of the world: jerry cans filled with water and gasoline, a sleeping tent for two, inflatable mattresses, and a stove, which, in addition to other odds and sods, they had picked up from the Fiera di Sinigaglia market. Aside from their hearts and the open road to guide them, they also took along with them a ruffled Michelin guide and cut-outs of photographs from a copy of National Geographic, which would lead them to the troglodyte cave dwellings of Cappadocia in central Turkey. He would first cut his teeth there, he thought, and make a name for himself as a budding photographer after selling his images to a local Italian newspaper. ‘Mmm … Cappadocia’, he said to himself. ‘They’ll go wild.’
Bumping along in the Fiat across Europe, it was all hunky-dory, too close to home: clouds of smoke above towering chimneys, crumbling factories and warehouses, the plight of the proletariat; but, as they rolled into Istanbul with Leo, Claudia, Paola, and Franco, whom they’d caught up with in Dubrovnik, Gabriele felt as if the visions and spectres he’d often seen during those sleepless nights, during which he’d writhe between his sheets and stare, hopelessly, outside his window, were taking shape. If only we’d come by sea! Young Gabriele would have, like his compatriot de Amicis before him, seen minarets obscured by fog, the hazy outline of cupolas on the horizon, gulls circling above choppy, limpid waves, and rolling hills speckled with white, red, and ochre. He would have joined all the others to rush out, agog, onto the deck to fathom the unfathomable: Constantinople, of Byzantium that was once theirs, and now lost to even the Grand Signor himself.
But the dream, they all knew, lay further eastwards. It was no time for dawdling and indulging in fantasies; from afar resounded the call of Persia, of Khorasan and Kharazm. He would venture beyond de Amicis and Bon, who had perhaps become too accustomed to the splendours of Ottoman court culture and the manifold quarters of Stamboul, which to them must have seemed like the sordid beating heart of the world, teeming with every people under the sun: Persians, Greeks, Armenians, Venetians, Jews, and – in the eyes of the Italian travellers – the nefarious Turk, whose insolent armies had dared to penetrate so far as into the Holy Roman Empire, up to the gates of Vienna herself! No, Gabriele wasn’t following in the footsteps of those curious Italians, but rather in those of another young traveller from the westerly shores of Europe. Forty years before him, a twenty-something Robert Byron had set out from Albion to visit a Persia under the iron grip of Marjoribanks, and Afghanistan, ravenous to devour, with wide and wanting eyes, the architecture of the Persianate world. Like Gabriele would after him, the twenty-eight-year-old Byron had documented part of his journey in the form of black-and-white photographs; unlike the Latin, however, Byron had managed to journey further eastwards to Afghanistan, where he encountered a people whose authenticity, vis-à-vis that of their Persian cousins and their faux-Western ways, captivated him. Nay – thirsty for Samarkand and Kabul, the sun-worshippers never made it past the land of lovers, world-conquerors, and wild dervishes. Blame it on a Citroën.
Sitting at the wheel of his father’s fading Fiat, his hands moist from perspiration and his fair cheeks rough and ruddy, Gabriele felt ill. Perhaps he’d caught something in one of the roadside hovels they’d been stopping at along the way; or, he thought as he tugged at his beard in anxiety, he might have been burning out. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had a proper meal, and the thought was enough to make him long for the Milan he had only been too fain to get away from. A diet of peaches, water, and kebabs had done a number on him and Giovanna, and, passing by the restaurants lining never-ending Pahlavi Avenue, he blushed at his jealousy. But by then, he had gotten used to a stoic life on the move and the way of the rolling stone; being skint and hungry for adventure meant that you clawed at whatever came your way, and thanked the man, too. No, it wasn’t those godawful peaches or the stifling heat under a sun that ‘just wouldn’t die’, as he’d heard some say; it was something more unnerving, more nauseating – something he knew all too well, and which had seemingly followed the gang all the while: the odious stench of globalisation. They sickened him, those ‘modern’ women in their fuck-me pumps who spoke French and wanted to eat Alain Delon alive, those boys in whose eyes one could see American dreams and fantasies of laying blonde, blue-eyed bimbos, those slavish parvenus who were ready to bow to anyone with so much as a smattering of a British or American accent. He hadn’t come all the way from Milan to drink Pepsi Cola and see Lando Buzzanca on the silver screen; where was the Iran of his dreams, of the tales of Scheherazade, of Gathic hymns? Were these ‘Westoxified’ children really the heirs of the Shahs who had used Roman emperors as footstools and made Pharaohs grovel on bended knee? That wasn’t his scene; but he knew they were there, the Iranians of old, the ‘dignified and simple boys with their beautiful necks, the beautiful, bright faces under innocent haircuts’, as Pasolini would later describe them.
‘To hell with this lot’, he muttered under his breath, tapping his sticky fingers along to a ditty on the radio. He wanted to see the grittier parts of Tehran in the south that one often saw in those tough-guy movies; and from Tehran, he resolved to travel not further east, but south towards the Persian Gulf, to the ruins of what was once the most splendid palace on earth, the crushing epicentre of the storied empire that had long ago, guided by the fire of Mazda and the Holy Immortals, held the world in its sway. Perhaps, away from ‘frenetic’ Tehran, the seekers thought, would they find those beautiful children of noble blood they so sought.
… He began to realise what was happening to him: the inevitable that happens to all who tarry in the land of the Lion and Sun. He was becoming Persian.
The dog-eared Michelin guide, warped and curled by heat and sweat, suggested they first visit the holy city of Qom on their southern expedition. The locals didn’t know what to make of the gaunt farangi in his bellbottoms, snapping pictures of scowling, sun-baked faces around the shrine of the Innocent. ‘Maybe he’s a Georgian or Armenian’, whispered some in the deep shadows of the sumptuous minarets; they were dead giveaways, the six curious travellers who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. They weren’t after the mythical treasures of the shrine, whose whereabouts one of their rascally countrymen, an infidel disguised in billowing Persian robes, had once hastily scrawled down in a frayed notebook, as some may have thought; nor did they, by way of some sinister ruse, intend to bring misery upon the faithful of Fatemeh. But it mattered little when they caught a glimpse of those foreboding glares and the man with the blackened brow reaching for a stone that would fit his gnarled palms. ‘It would be best if you left’, a policeman told them brusquely; well then, step on the gas and wipe that tear away. In any case, they thought, there’s not a bite to be had here, and our peaches are turning to mush. Toss that bastard guide out the window; we’ll just keep driving, keep moving, onwards towards … Oh! Esfahan, the Image of the World itself, Shiraz, the city of poets …
We have no peaches. Our pockets are empty, our faces desiccated and burnt, and our soles hard and heavy; but in beholding thee, Esfahan, we feel not our burden, but an ineffable hope and elation. In you, the Image of the World, we see not this ever-wandering sphere, suspended in the Cimmerian void above, but Paradise as your sleeping children once envisioned it on brumal steppes and in the windswept deserts of Persia. A symmetry so sublime, so terrifyingly ethereal, and – Dio mio – grand beyond belief; even had I not eyes would I feel your beauty and presence, so palpable are they. I have come home, home to my East, in which all things have their beginning and end. I can see it all: all worlds merge in you, Esfahan, genius of the Persian psyche and soul. On the surface of thy holy houses, I see shimmering fairy-tale domes and humbling ivans dripping with stalactites in a hundred colours, and pulpits from the ages of hordes; but the deeper I dig, the more I search, the more your essence becomes apparent, O Iran, land of the noble. I hear echoes of the House of Sassan through chambers of Achaemenid stone, and the hooves of chargers, foaming at the mouth, from beyond the Oxus; I feel the warmth of Zarathustra’s flame, that spark of Mazda burning yet, and see everywhere the bluest blue, of the earth of Khorasan and that elixir the Persians have ever held dear. Yea, Esfahan, thou truly art the image of this world and the next.
Another fever had come on; this time, though, Gabriele knew it was different. Sweating through a threadbare button-down shirt that had seemingly been to hell and back, his head, buffeted by hot gusts of wind, throbbed with a million different thoughts. Had they been real, Esfahan and Shiraz? They seemed so far away, though their kaleidoscopic images lingered yet. He hadn’t understood any of the strange, beautiful verses of the tongue of the unseen, incanted as if they were the arcana of some coterie or other; but he could feel their imprint on his heart all the same. He had changed. His being had been kissed by the hot Persian sun, he had been unwittingly initiated into a fraternity of poets and mystics. The warp and weft of his sense of time and space had, without the smoke of flowers, shifted, and things he had once thought trivial began to take on, in his knowing eyes, a new and profound significance. The thought gave him a jolt; as they passed a string of roadside inns and the crumbling ruins of an old caravanserai amidst burnt plains and purple mountains, he began to realise what was happening to him: the inevitable that happens to all who tarry in the land of the lion and sun. He was becoming Persian. Looking outside the window of the bumbling Fiat, a grin stretched out across his hardened face. ‘Che?‘ his friends asked him. ‘Niente‘, he replied, still smiling, fancying that he could see the ghost of Della Valle, bedecked in sumptuous Persian garb, winking at him in the distance.
Onwards, ever onwards. Ruin after ruin, nomads with their flocks and swarthy goat-hair tents, the sun beating down harder than ever before. He could feel it in his bones, smell it in the hot, dusty air: they were nearing Persepolis. The very idea of being in the presence of that fallen city, whose name he couldn’t help but whisper over and over again to himself, made him realise his own insignificance, and brought on a feeling of bitter remorse. He cursed the wild Macedonian, who, in a drunken rage destroyed that which he had so envied and desired; but, more than the Iranophile and his Greeks-turned-Persian, he railed in his heart against savage time, who had forgotten the dream of Darius and left his gilded utopia in a heap of dust and rubble. The abode of the proud Homa bird and those towering winged bulls had been ransacked by shameless wolves and jackals. Who could have ever fathomed such an idea, such a dream, and pulled it off with such pomp? Had you asked the locals centuries ago, they would have sworn it was the work of the mythical Jamshid, whose bejewelled goblet had held the secrets of the universe – no, it couldn’t have been the work of a mere mortal, however much he had been smiled upon by Mazda on high. As those broken pillars, burning naked on the horizon – not unlike the decaying smokestacks of Milan – came into view, he thought of the old potter he’d seen whilst meandering in the shadows of an Esfahani alleyway, and the words of a wise tentmaker: He made them sturdy – handles, lids, and all – from the hands of tramps, and the heads of kings.
‘There will be an imperial dinner, plates of pasta unseen even in Rome, and, in the evening, the magical, sights, sounds, and lights of an extraordinary archaeological site’, an Italian official told the travellers in Persepolis. A year later, the most extravagant celebration the modern world had ever seen, or could remember, would cast a dark shadow over the Light of the Aryans and herald the beginning of the end. Amidst a coruscating crowd of emperors, figureheads, and petty dictators, Cyrus, the Father, would be told to sleep at ease; for the Shah of Iran, ever-powerful and adored by the leaders of worlds civilised and barbarian – who would pass in supplication through the Gate of All Nations, like their forefathers twenty-five hundred ago – rested firmly atop the Peacock Throne. Were they omens, those spiralling clouds of dust? The faulty fireworks? Those little Spanish birds that fell from atop transplanted trees, unable to withstand the scorched earth of the Persian heartland?
The greatest show on earth had, perhaps, roused Cyrus from his slumber; for the spirit of Cyrus, like Gabriele, would have found little to revel in and celebrate. Cyrus, whose praises Gabriele had read in Machiavelli and his ancient Greek texts, would have known that those the Shah was so impassionedly endeavouring to impress would soon desert him – or worse – lay siege to his beloved Iran at the first opportunity. And, like Gabriele, Cyrus’ heart would have sunk at the sight of such stinging distinctions of class, and the abject poverty of his children, downtrodden and miserable, for whom he had fought to build an empire and elevate to the highest spheres. One can only imagine how Cyrus, with his finger pressed against his lip, would have felt at the sight of his descendants, tearing off their clothes in the name of progress, salivating in awe at the sight of those from the West – the glorious, infallible West – and desperately striving to ape their every move. Nay, Cyrus’ blessed spirit must have been crying from the House of Song, for this I did not give my head.
Gabriele knew, and could feel that the Iran of Cyrus and his bedroom visions was slowly being effaced by the unstoppable plague of ‘Westoxification’. Just as he was witnessing how the old abandoned edifices of Italy were giving way to modern ones more befitting of a world looking towards the moon and the approaching millennium, so too did he see the indigenous and ancient ways of the Iranians slowly crumbling before a largely imposed idea of modernity and imported ideals. To be traditional, or Iranian, was passé; though Iranian identity was being redefined and re-examined, and the bourgeois were wallowing in fantasies of their nation’s heyday, Iranian eyes and hearts alike were leaning increasingly westwards, to Europe and the New World. ‘She’s beautiful … she looks just like those foreigners with blue eyes and blonde hair … just like a foreigner.‘ The modern-day Darius dreamed not of Persian glories, but taking Farah Fawcett lookalikes to San Francisco.
Talk about a rude awakening, Gabriele thought to himself upon arriving in Milan, one hand in Giovanna’s and the other clutching a Hasselblad. The dream was over; they had seen their East and made their pilgrimage to the source of the sun, following no dictate save that of ever moving forward and evading the spectres clinging to their heels. At customs, their belongings were gutted and a pound of not the opium of their hollow-cheeked friends, but henna, seized from them. They would never see Iran again, nor would they ever set their eyes on Kabul and Samarkand. Even if he were to visit Iran again, he was certain it wouldn’t be the same; as always, the old would dwindle before the new, and all around would ring slogans of progress, civilisation, and reform. It would only be a matter of time before his Iran would be dashed to pieces by He who maketh and breaketh, the Potter. At least, he thought, scratching his cheeks through the curls of his beard, he had his little pictures to tell the tale of what once was, and what would never again be.
‘Iran, 1970′ runs through May 7, 2016 at Studio la Città in Verona, Italy.
Images courtesy Giovanna Calvenzi.