Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard: A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan

Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard: A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan

by Nicholas Jubber


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An engrossing blend of travel writing and history, Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah’s Beard traces one man’s adventure-filled journey through today’s Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, and describes his remarkable attempt to make sense of the present by delving into the past.

Setting out to gain insight into the lives of Iranians and Afghans today, Nicholas Jubber is surprised to uncover the legacy of a vibrant pre-Islamic Persian culture that has endured even in times of the most fanatic religious fundamentalism. Everywhere—from underground dance parties to religious shrines to opium dens—he finds powerful and unbreakable connections to a time when both Iran and Afghanistan were part of the same mighty empire, when the flame of Persian culture lit up the world.

Whether through his encounters with poets and cab drivers or run-ins with “pleasure daughters” and mujahideen, again and again Jubber is drawn back to the eleventh-century Persian epic, the Shahnameh (“Book of Kings”). The poem becomes not only his window into the region’s past, but also his link to its tumultuous present, and through it Jubber gains access to an Iran and Afghanistan seldom revealed or depicted: inside-out worlds in which he has tea with a warlord, is taught how to walk like an Afghan, and even discovers, on a night full of bootleg alcohol and dancing, what it means to drink arak off an Ayatollah’s beard.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780306818844
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication date: 05/04/2010
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.02(h) x 0.97(d)

About the Author

Nicholas Jubber is the author of The Prester Quest, winner of the prestigious Authors Club/Dolman Best Travel Book Award. His writing has appeared in periodicals worldwide. He lives in London.

Read an Excerpt

Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard

A Journey Through the Inside-Out Worlds of Iran and Afghanistan
By Jubber, Nicholas

Da Capo Press

Copyright © 2010 Jubber, Nicholas
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780306818844


Mashhad, Eastern Iran. September.

“Oh. My. God.”

One glimpse is enough to rip out my optimism—like someone came along and extracted it with a knife.

The bus is the last in its row, each more battered and less brightly painted than the one before, its roof more heavily crushed by boxes and buckets strapped on with string, and a larger pool of water rising around the wheels to trap them in a glue of mud. All the buses in the station look decrepit, but this one is a parody of the rest. It looks like the worst bus in the world.

A man is standing over me, wrinkling his nose at my ticket. It turns out he’s the driver.

“Why do you go to Afghanistan?” he exclaims. “You think this is

a country for tourists?”

His laugh is throaty and thoroughly disconcerting. Had the old man behind me not set his arm on my shoulder, I might be making a dash for the bus back to Tehran.

“I am a traveler like you,” he whispers.

This man has skin like walnut bark and wears a gray waistcoat over his knee-length shirt, under a brimless woolen cap that looks like it’s been woven from his beard.

“I have been on a pilgrimage,” he continues, “to the Holy City.”

“You are a Hajji?[1] You’ve just come back?”

“No, no, no!” His teeth gleam gold between his parched lips. “I went thirty years ago. I couldn’t afford to go now!”

His small gray eyes shine through the creases of his skin. He seems to be kind, so I decide to stick with him.

“Afghanistan is a good country,” he says, poking his nose between the headrests in front of me—we have settled inside the bus now. He squinnies his brow for a moment, before adding, “It was a good country.”

“When?” says a man in an ocean-colored polo shirt who’s taken the seat across the aisle from mine. He looks like he should be on vacation in Hawaii.

The Hajji looks up, frowning, then in a burst of inspiration he declares, “In Kaiser Wilhelm’s day!” He raps the headrest as he explains, “There was a train.”

We wait an hour for movement. When it finally comes, there is a terrible groan underneath us, as if some wild beast has been stretched out under the chassis, then a tick-tick as the engine rattles to a stop. Is this bus not even capable of forward propulsion? But I can hear a noise swelling around us, suggesting another cause for our pause. Gingerly, the Hajji lifts a pleated nylon curtain to peer through the window. I notice an anxious expression creeping across his face.

Mujahideen,” he whispers.

A wave of sunlight washes through the door: a swamp of flailing limbs, enormous beards, long torn gowns. Boxes fly down the aisle; burlap sacks pile on the seats and around the steps in the middle. Buckets clatter on top of them, all the way up to the Formica ceiling, as do more sacks, plastic bags, and finally—shunted through the door, defying the tiny space that’s left—a Honda motorcycle.

“They are fighting men,” whispers the Hajji. “Do not say you are a foreigner.”

All of them are dressed in baggy trousers and knee-length shirts—the traditional Afghan costume known as shalwar qameez. I bought a set for myself only yesterday, knowing I would need it in Afghanistan’s troubled south, but I haven’t put it on yet, so it will be easy to identify me as an outsider. Hiding my tell-tale Roman-scripted notebook in the overhead rack, I excavate an enormous green-jacketed hardback out of my pack. It’s the only Persian book in my possession—the language not only of the Iranians whom I’m leaving, but also of a large number of the Afghans among whom I’ll be traveling. Tooled across its spine—a gorgeous cluster of golden dots, elaborate curls, and long

barbed stalks—is the word Shahnameh—Book of Kings.

You are reading that?” asks the Hajji, his gold teeth flashing in his gasp.

The man in the ocean-colored polo shirt, whose name is Wahid, is more proactive.

“Here,” he says, leaning across the aisle and reaching for the book, “give it here.”

He turns its pages delicately, and familiarly—as if he’s caressed these very pages in the past—and when he comes across a verse he likes, his mouth expands to the size of a tea saucer:

Mayaazaar muri ke daneh Oh stamp not the ant that is

kash ast under your feet

Ke jaan daarad u jaan e shirin For it has a soul and its own soul

khush ast. is sweet.

The Hajji smiles, his eyes as bright as his gold teeth, repeating the verse in a whisper, as if to memorize it for himself. I have come across plenty of poetry aficionados in Iran—on a few occasions I’ve even attended poetry circles where traditional instruments were played as people recited from their favorite authors. But I was advised not to expect this sort of thing in Afghanistan. “They are murdering brutes” was one of the less cryptic descriptions I heard. So to watch polo-shirt-wearing Wahid, his eyes glued to the pages and his lips quivering to the rhythm of the thousand-year-old words, is hugely reassuring. Maybe the Afghans won’t be as formidable as I’ve been warned.

We are near the border. You can tell because the landscape is growing less and less friendly. A medieval traveler would have known the “abundant fruit-trees, streams and mills” spotted here by the great Muslim globe-trotter Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century. But now the fertility has dried up. Low-slung mud-brick farmsteads slumber

behind bald fields and mountain scarps scissor the sky like dragon scales. As the Afghan border draws ever closer, even these features grow scarce. It’s as if the land is stripping itself of possessions in preparation for bandit country.

I had spent eight months in Iran before I finally set out for Afghanistan. Eight months of incredible comfort with the kindest of families in a gated house in North Tehran. For more than half of this time, I was actively planning a journey to Afghanistan—a grand old romp through that distant and seemingly treacherous land. But whenever I was on the verge of setting out, something astonishing would happen: I would stumble, quite by chance it seemed, on an absolutely unavoidable reason to delay. Well, there’s a film festival coming up in Tehran and my host’s daughter has been teaching me all about the Iranian film industry, so it would be a crime to miss it. . . . Oh, I should really go and visit the eighth imam’s footprint. . . . And what about the Quran museum, where the nation’s Supreme Leaders (the Ayatollahs, Khomeini and Khamenei) have been embroidered on velvet, composed out of wheat, or depicted in oils by an armless war veteran who paints with his mouth? . . .

Even when I did finally set out, I decided not to let my fellow passengers in on what I was up to.

“If you tell the Afghans your plan,” said my host in Tehran—his brown owl-like eyes gleaming with the warning—“they will tear you to pieces!”

So I’m keeping my mission under wraps, hidden in my backpack, and when they ask me what I am doing here, I only give them a vague indication of my route.

“I suppose,” I say, when the Hajji asks me, “I want to find out if Afghan and Iranian culture have much in common.”

“Oh yes,” he says excitedly, “we are the same. We are both Aryan, we have the same poets—Hafez, Ferdowsi, for example—and our music is also similar.”

“No we’re not!” declares Wahid, stamping his foot on the runner. “You know what we call the Iranians? You know?”

His mouth twists into a scowl and he screws up his nose, preparing me for the most offensive put-down in history.

“We call them,” he announces, “sandwich-eaters!”

It isn’t quite the slap-down I was anticipating, although it makes sense—given all the sandwich restaurants I’ve encountered on the Iranian streets. Afghans, as I will learn, do not generally indulge in “Westernized” snack food, preferring to stick to their traditional dishes.

“They aren’t tough like us,” continues Wahid. “They don’t know what it means to be a man!”

As if to underline his point, he drops the green-jacketed copy of the Shahnameh directly onto my lap. It’s hard not to be winded by the direct plunge of a 1,500-page weight—but I dare not utter a sound, lest he decide I’m another sandwich-munching sissy. Now, drawing closer to me on the seat, he appears to be continuing his test of my physical endurance, by squeezing my shoulder under his paw. His face, however, is turning softer, his eyes lighting up with a new thought.

“Mind you,” he says, “have you been to Shiraz?”

“The women!” He chuckles, looking round to check the Hajji isn’t listening. “I went to Shiraz,” he whispers. “I thought I was in paradise!” He squeezes my shoulder even harder, before drawing back to his seat, shaking his head as he adds in a loud voice, “a country of sandwich-eaters!”

I’m not the only one who’s been trying to delay the inevitable. The driver is in no hurry to reach Afghanistan himself—a few miles before the border, we stop at a roadside canteen. Buckwheat grits are scooped onto tin plates as men hunch over the tables, while the women wait patiently on a veranda outside. Sitting among them are an old man trilling on a ney flute and another with a bandaged stump for a leg, who stretches out a hand for alms. It’s the musician who is receiving the most attention, but neither has the crowd for long. At the hoot of the air horn, they turn into a scrum and charge the bus, where the boxes and buckets already clinging to the rusty bars of the roof are now jostled by a cooker, a metal safe, and a dozen gas-pump poles.

“I walked across this border once,” says Wahid, as we watch the last few parched kilometers of Iran in the window. “It was in the war. When the Russian tanks came to Herat I decided to escape. I walked over the mountains for a day and a night and came out on the other side.”

“Where did you go?” I ask.

“Germany. I lived there for twenty years. Now I’m back in Afghanistan but I still have business with Germany—I sell secondhand BMWs in Kabul.”

He leans toward me, his sharp eyes peering through the glare of sunlight coming from the window.

“Where in my country do you want to go?” he asks.

“Well,” I whisper, “I really want to go to Ghazni.” I’m referring to a city on the other side of the country, roughly between Kandahar and Kabul, which was once the fulcrum of Afghanistan’s mightiest empire. “Do you think it’s possible?”

“Ghazni?” His voice has turned to a gasp. “But that’s in Taliban country.”

One of the mujahideen has overheard us. His beard is dangling over the headrest in front of me as he studies my face, like it’s a map for hidden treasure.

“You can’t go to Ghazni,” he says.
“But I’ve got to!”

The Hajji leans forward, his chin snug in the crook of his hands: “There is no reason he can’t go to Ghazni. I am from Ghazni myself. In Ghazni it is secure. It is the road to Ghazni that is the problem.”

Sweat is dripping off my brow and trickling down my glasses—although I’m not sure if it’s been caused by my anxiety or the heat. The driver is sweating too; he dabs his face with his handkerchief, having braked to allow a policeman inside.

“Anyone who has a passport,” says the policeman, “get down.”

Apart from Wahid and me, everyone stays put.

The border post is a vast encampment, spread across the scrub desert. A dozen UNHCR[2] buses are parked outside makeshift tents, near the mud-brick customs huts, which spew out a crowd of Afghans in their baggy trousers and long shirts. They aren’t much taller than me, but they look enormous, enlarged by their beards and the hauteur with which they stride. I feel like an Oompa-Loompa at a convention for giants.

“Come on,” says Wahid.

He hangs an arm over my shoulder, as warmly as a lover, leading me to a hut where an officer in a navy uniform is sitting behind a wooden counter. The officer’s face is impassive, his thumb pressed down on the business end of his Kalashnikov (otherwise known as an AK-47).

“You are a child of where?” he asks.

“Britain.” I want to say “Great Britain,” but giants and Kalashnikovs have whittled down my national pride.

He seizes my passport, thumping his stamp onto my Iranian visa.

“That’s Iran,” I say.

He snatches the passport back, stamps the right page, and throws it directly at my head.

Back at the bus, a problem is brewing. A relay of mujahideen are carrying bottles and bowls of water to cool down the radiator, while the driver and a lackey are bustling under the chassis, hammering away with the contents of a toolbox. As I watch them at work, I’m struck by the thought that we might end up having to stay here all night.

“It is in the hands of God,” declares the Hajji, his palms raised and his gold teeth catching the last flashes of the dying sunlight.

I crouch down on the tarmac beside him, too nervous to enjoy the attention I’m receiving from the mujahideen. But I’d better make their acquaintance, that much is becoming clear—because one of them is flicking through the pages of a familiar green-jacketed hardback. He’s picked up my copy of the Shahnameh—the thousand-year-old epic Persian poem, which I had left on my seat.

“This is yours?” he asks, one heavy brow inching up his forehead.

I nod firmly—remembering what Wahid said about Afghan toughness, I don’t want the mujahid to think I’m a pushover:

“You have read it?”
  “Of course! It is the story of my country.”

The book is presented on his outstretched palms, as if he were an upmarket waiter offering a rare delicacy.

“You are a foreigner,” he declares, probing me with his gaze.

“Well . . . ” I stall, scrabbling in my head for some way of avoiding the inevitable answer, before succumbing at last: “Yes, I suppose I am.”

“So why do you read Shahnameh? You want to know how we defeat our enemies?”

I’m puzzled. Are we talking about the same book? The same thousand-year-old book? Sure, there might be a lot of battles in it—in fact, there are times when you wonder if there is ever going to be anything else. But the warriors of the Shahnameh fight with bows and spears and occasionally an ox-headed mace—it’s not exactly the stuff of modern-day warfare.

“Because,” he says, “if you read Shahnameh, you can understand why we will never let foreigners rule our country.”

He is communicating a view I have often heard in Iran and will hear again in Afghanistan. It’s a view of the Shahnameh as more than just a collection of tales—a living, breathing entity; the most accurate account available of the psyche of the Persian-speaking people (in this case, meaning the Persian-speaking Afghans as much as the Iranians).

Our conversation is interrupted by a whoop—a joyful trilling all around us. The bus is ready to move! The tick-tick of the engine transforms into a confident, definitely-making-progress rumble, to which the mujahideen respond with a declaration of the Doctrine of Divine Unity: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the messenger of God.” They recite it at the same pitch as English soccer fans chanting a winning score: not so much one–nil as One God. Why are they so happy? To our right is the same craggy mountain that’s refused to budge ever since I arrived in Khorasan,[3] while on the other side are mud-brick slums, soldiers sitting on tires, and square metal cargo containers—brought over during the Cold War and now doubling as shops.

At the edge of a village, a crowd is milling around a man whose knee-length shirt is flecked with blood. The cause of the blood, I assume, is the car behind him—it’s been concertinaed by a truck lying sideways on the road, although he could just as easily have been wounded by one of the Kalashnikovs that are carried as copiously as iPods in London: unattended on the steps of domed mud-brick houses, in the laps of men sipping tea, resting against the cargo containers.

It’s dark when we pass a copse of towers the shape of smokestacks. Where are the lights? There was more luster in the smallest Iranian village than there is now in Herat—Afghanistan’s second largest city. A taxi drops me at a crossroads called Flower, where the Taliban used to hang its “criminals”—musicians, drinkers, intellectuals, lovers. . . . In the lobby of the Hotel Mowaffaq (which means—for reasons that must have been clear an awfully long time ago—“successful”), scallops of plaster are peeling off the walls, as if the building is protesting its name.

After a brief skirmish with the keyhole, I step inside a chipped door to find a bare, rugless room. There are cracks across the walls, a hole concealed by newspaper, and bedding so stiff you could probably sell it to a sculptor and pass it off as rock. Outside my window, the dogs are already starting to bark.

Compared with the comfort I’ve enjoyed for the past few months—a warm bed in the coziest of houses in the most affluent part of Tehran—this is like falling through a trapdoor and ending up in the bowels of hell. I can hear a metallic clicking under my bed, but I don’t have the spirit to find out which particular species of creepy-crawly is lurking down there, waiting to feast. I drop my backpack on the floor, sprawl across the bed and close my eyes. . . .

[1] Hajji is the honorific title given to any Muslim who performs the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca.

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

[3] The name of this region on both the Iranian and Afghan sides of the border.


Excerpted from Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard by Jubber, Nicholas Copyright © 2010 by Jubber, Nicholas. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Map xii

Prologue 1

Part 1 Iran

1 The Inside-Out City 13

2 The Most Persian Persian 29

3 The Snake-Shouldered Tyrant 50

4 In the Land of Fire 71

5 Minstrels in the Mountains 98

Part 2 Afghanistan

6 The Prisoner Poets 117

7 Tea with a Warlord 131

Part 3 Iran and Central Asia

8 Tahmineh's Secret 153

9 The Man in the Moon 176

10 Poets, Polymaths, and Pleasure-Daughters 186

Part 4 Afghanistan

11 The Adventures of Abbas 215

12 How to Walk Like an Afghan 223

13 A Holiday House in Helmand 237

Part 5 Iran

14 The Bird in the Coffee Cup 255

15 Drinking Arak Off an Ayatollah's Beard 261

Part 6 Afghanistan

16 The Road to Ghazni 281

17 Insultin' the Sultan 292

Epilogue 307

Acknowledgments 313

Glossary 315

Bibliography 321

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