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Chapter 8

Four thousand feet above sea-level--Castellated walls--An
obnoxious individual--Luggage weighing--The strange figure of an
African black--How he saved an Englishman's life--Teheran
hotels--Interesting guests--Life of bachelors in Teheran--The
Britisher in Persia--Home early--Social
sets--Etiquette--Missionaries--Foreign communities--The servant

A few hours' rest to give one's aching bones a chance of returning into their normal condition and position, and amidst the profound salaams of the rest-house servants, we speed away towards Teheran, 130 versts more according to the Russian road measurement (about 108 miles). We gallop on the old, wide and flat road, on which the traffic alone diverts one,--long strings of donkeys, of camels, every now and then a splendid horse with a swaggering rider. We are travelling on the top of the plateau, and are keeping at an altitude slightly above 4,000 feet. Distant mountains lie to the north, otherwise there is absolutely nothing to see, no vegetation worth mentioning, everything dry and barren.

Now and then, miles and miles apart, comes a quadrangular or rectangular, castellated mud wall enclosing a cluster of fruit trees and vegetable gardens; then miles and miles again of dreary, barren country.

Were it not for the impudence of the natives--increasing to a maximum--there is nothing to warn the traveller that one is approaching the capital of the Persian Empire, and one finds one's self at the gate of the city without the usual excitement of perceiving from a distance a high tower, or a dome or a steeple or a fortress, or a landmark of some sort or other, to make one enjoy the approach of one's journey's end.

Abdulabad, 4,015 feet, Kishslak, 3,950 feet, Sankarabad, 4,210 feet, Sulimaneh, 4,520 feet, are the principal places and main elevations on the road, but from the last-named place the incline in the plateau tends to descend very gently. Teheran is at an altitude of 3,865 feet.

Six farsakhs from Teheran, where we had to change horses, an individual connected with the transport company made himself very obnoxious, and insisted on accompanying the carriage to Teheran. He was picturesquely attired in a brown long coat, and displayed a nickel-plated revolver, with a leather belt of cartridges. He was cruel to the horses and a nuisance to the coachman. He interfered considerably with the progress of the carriage and made himself unbearable in every possible way. When I stopped at a khafe-khana for a glass of tea, he actually removed a wheel of the carriage, which we had considerable difficulty in putting right again, and he pounded the coachman on the head with the butt of his revolver, in order, as far as I could understand, that he should be induced to go half-shares with him in the backshish that the driver would receive at the end of the stage.

All this provided some entertainment, until we reached the Teheran gate. Only half a mile more and I should be at the hotel. But man proposes and the Persian disposes. The carriage and fourgon were driven into a large courtyard, the horses were unharnessed, all the luggage removed from the fourgon and carriage, and deposited in the dust. A primitive scale was produced and slung to a tripod, and each article weighed and weighed over again so as to take up as much of one's time as possible. Various expedients to impose upon me, having failed I was allowed to proceed, a new fourgon and fresh horses being provided for the journey of half a mile more, the obnoxious man jumping first on the box so as to prevent being left behind.

At last the hotel was reached, and here another row arose with a profusion of blows among a crowd of beggars who had at once collected and disputed among themselves the right of unloading my luggage.

A strange figure appeared on the scene. A powerful, half-naked African, as black as coal, and no less than six foot two in height. He sported a huge wooden club in his hand, which he whirled round in a most dangerous manner, occasionally landing it on people's skulls and backs in a sonorous fashion. The crowd vanished, and he, now as gently as possible, removed the luggage from the fourgon and conveyed it into the hotel.

The obnoxious man now hastily descended from his seat and demanded a backshish.

"What for?"

"Oh, sir," intervened a Persian gentleman present, "this man says he has annoyed you all the way, but he could not make you angry. He must have backshish! He makes a living by annoying travellers!"

In contrast to this low, depraved parasite, the African black seemed quite a striking figure,--a scamp, if you like, yet full of character. He was a dervish, with drunken habits and a fierce nature when under the influence of drink, but with many good points when sober. On one occasion an Englishman was attacked by a crowd of Persians, and was in danger of losing his life, when this man, with considerable bravery (not to speak of his inseparable mallet which he used freely), went to the rescue of the sahib and succeeded in saving him. For this act of courage he has ever since been supported by the charity of foreigners in Teheran. He unfortunately spends all his earnings in drink, and can be very coarse indeed, in his songs and imitations, which he delights in giving when under the influence of liquor. He hangs round the hotel, crying out "Yahu! yahu!" when hungry--a cry quite pathetic and weird, especially in the stillness of night.

There are two hotels in Teheran and several European and Armenian restaurants. The English hotel is the best,--not a dream of cleanliness, nor luxury, nor boasting of a cuisine which would remain impressed upon one's mind, except for its elaborate monotony,--but quite a comfortable place by comparison with the other European hotels of Persia. The beds are clean, and the proprietress tries hard to make people comfortable.

More interesting than the hotel itself was the curious crowd of people whom one saw at the dinner-table. I remember sitting down one evening to dinner with nine other people, and we represented no less than ten different nationalities! The tower of Babel sank almost into insignificance compared with the variety of languages one heard spoken all round, and one's polyglot abilities were tested to no mean extent in trying to carry on a general conversation. One pleasant feature of these dinners was the amount of talent and good-humour that prevailed in the company, and the absolute lack of distinction of class or social position. Side by side one saw a distinguished diplomat conversing with the Shah's automobile driver, and a noteworthy English member of Parliament on friendly terms with an Irish gentleman of the Indo-European Telegraphs. A burly, jolly Dutchman stood drinks all round to members of the Russian and English Banks alike, and a French sage-femme just arrived discussed her prospects with the hotel proprietress. The Shah's A.D.C. and favourite music-composer and pianist came frequently to enliven the evenings with some really magnificent playing, and by way of diversion some wild Belgian employees of the derelict sugar-factory used almost nightly to cover with insults a notable "Chevalier d'industrie" whose thick skin was amazing.

Then one met Armenians--who one was told had come out of jail,--and curio-dealers, mine prospectors, and foreign Generals of the Persian army.

Occasionally there was extra excitement when an engagement or a wedding took place, when the parties usually adjourned to the hotel, and then there was unlimited consumption of beer, nominally (glycerine really, for, let me explain, beer does not stand a hot climate unless a large percentage of glycerine is added to it), and of highly-explosive champagne and French wines, Château this and Château that--of Caspian origin.

Being almost a teetotaller myself, this mixed crowd--but not the mixed drink--was interesting to study, and what particularly struck me was the bonhomie, the real good-heartedness, and manly but thoughtful, genial friendliness of men towards one another, irrespective of class, position or condition, except, of course, in the cases of people with whom it was not possible to associate. The hard, mean, almost brutal jealousy, spite, the petty rancour of the usual Anglo-Indian man, for instance, does not exist at all in Persia among foreigners or English people. On the contrary, it is impossible to find more hospitable, more gentlemanly, polite, open-minded folks than the Britishers one meets in Persia.

Of course, it must be remembered, the type of Britisher one finds in Persia is a specially talented, enterprising and well-to-do individual, whose ideas have been greatly broadened by the study of several foreign languages which, in many cases, have taken him on the Continent for several years in his youth. Furthermore, lacking entirely the ruling "look down upon the native" idea, so prevalent in India, he is thrown much in contact with the Persians, adopting from them the courteous manner and form of speech, which is certainly more pleasant than the absurd rudeness of the "keep-aloof" notion which generally makes us hated by most Orientals.

The Britisher in Persia, with few exceptions, is a charming person, simple and unaffected, and ready to be of service if he can. He is not aggressive, and, in fact, surprisingly suave.

This abnormal feature in the British character is partly due to the climate, hot but very healthy, and to the exile to which the Briton has to reconcile himself for years to come. Indeed, Persia is an exile, a painful one for a bachelor, particularly. Woman's society, which at all times helps to make life sweet and pleasant, is absolutely lacking in Persia. European women are scarce and mostly married or about to get married. The native women are kept in strict seclusion. One never sees a native woman except heavily veiled under her chudder, much less can a European talk to her. The laws of Persia are so severe that anything in the shape of a flirtation with a Persian lady may cost the life of Juliet or Romeo, or both, and if life is spared, blackmail is ever after levied by the police or by the girl's parents or by servants.

In Teheran all good citizens must be indoors by nine o'clock at night, and any one found prowling in the streets after that hour has to deal with the police. In the European quarter this rule is overlooked in the case of foreigners, but in the native city even Europeans found peacefully walking about later than that hour are taken into custody and conveyed before the magistrate, who satisfies himself as to the man's identity and has him duly escorted home.

There are no permanent amusements of any kind in Teheran. An occasional concert or a dance, but no theatres, no music-halls. There is a comfortable Club, where people meet and drink and play cards, but that is all.

Social sets, of course, exist in the Teheran foreign community. There are "The Telegraph" set, "the Bank," "the Legations." There is an uncommon deal of social etiquette, and people are most particular regarding calls, dress, and the number of cards left at each door. It looks somewhat incongruous to see men in their black frock-coats and silk tall hats, prowling about the streets, with mud up to their knees if wet, or blinded with dust if dry, among strings of camels, mules, or donkeys. But that is the fashion, and people have to abide by it.

There are missionaries in Teheran, American and English, but fortunately they are not permitted to make converts. The English, Russian and Belgian communities are the most numerous, then the French, the Dutch, the Austrian, the Italian, the American.

Taking things all round, the Europeans seem reconciled to their position in Teheran--a life devoid of any very great excitement, and partaking rather of the nature of vegetation, yet with a certain charm in it--they say--when once people get accustomed to it. But one has to get accustomed to it first.

The usual servant question is a very serious one in Teheran, and is one of the chief troubles that Europeans have to contend with. There are Armenian and Persian servants, and there is little to choose between the two. Servants accustomed to European ways are usually a bad lot, and most unreliable; but in all fairness it must be admitted that, to a great extent, these servants have been utterly spoilt by Europeans themselves, who did not know how to deal with them in a suitable manner. I repeatedly noticed in Teheran and other parts of Persia that people who really understood the Persian character, and treated subordinates with consideration, had most excellent servants--to my mind, the most intelligent and hard-working in the world--and spoke very highly of them.