Sunday, 20 May 2012

Back in the bottle - calling Saeed Barzin

Now I think of it, playing a trick on Saeed was how I first got to meet him.

It was in the days when a 'party' consisted of everyone sitting around in groups on the carpet, listening to music and chatting.

My group wistfully eyed-up the joints being rolled by a young Iranian man who modelled himself on his musical hero - Gerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead - with thick and lustrous black hair, parted in the middle, and a beard to match which covered most of his pale, Persian features.

I devised a plan and ostentatiously rolled a very large joint which I lit, took a few puffs from, then stood up and handed it to the young Iranian, who smoked some of it before passing it around amongst his companions.

The ploy worked, and the next one to be rolled was passed to us.  The only difference was that this one - unlike mine - actually contained some hashish.

Saeed introduced himself to me as I smoked his dope, and he complimented me on the quality of of mine, asking me where it came from.  "Nowhere",  I said,  "There was nothing but tobacco in it."

He laughed when I explained my little ruse, and we became friends from that moment on.  This was one of many little tricks I played on him, and I think it was the difference in cultures that made them so easy to execute.  I don't think that it ever occurred to Iranians that such deviousness existed in Englishmen, in the same way that it would never occur to a cat that you had a mind to drop it down a well.

Saeed was one of a group of Iranians whose wealthy families had sent to England to attend university, not realising that they would spend most of their time fruitlessly pursuing girls and attending parties at which alcohol was served as a matter of course.  They really had absolutely no idea about how to acquire an English girlfriend, and often sought my advice as to how to go about it.

We would go - at their insistence - to the worst nightclub in the area at the time, and sit at a table demurely sipping beer as they nervously eyed up the talent and spoke Farsi to each other in hoarse whispers.  Occasionally, one of them would break off, clear his throat and say,  "Thomas.  You see those two girls sitting at the bar over there?  Yes, the ones with the very short skirts and blonde hair.  Would you please ask them over to our table to have a drink with us?"

When I asked why they did not invite them themselves, they replied by saying that if the invitation came from an Englishman like myself, it would be much more likely to be received favourably.  I, in turn, would try to explain that it would be more likely to be interpreted as an invitation to a gang-bang with a bunch of desperate foreigners who had employed a native to facilitate their wicked, heathen intent.

Out of their own environment, they had set their sights as high as they thought realistically achievable, and this had the effect of making every girl they gave their attention to feel like a prostitute, but - due to the cultural differences - they were not aware of it.

If there was one thing in the world that Saeed absolutely HATED, it was the sun.  During the scorchingly hot summer of 1976, I would go to his apartment to find him sitting on the floor wrapped head to foot in a blanket, with the windows closed and the curtains drawn.  He had not known that he suffered from hay-fever until he arrived in Great Britain during the hottest summer since records began, with the highest pollen-count to match.

He told me of the many times he had been standing in the dusty street of a village outside Tehran, when - without warning - a column of fire about the same size as a man would suddenly appear spinning up the street in a tornado, causing everyone to run indoors for fear of their lives.  These animate fire-balls were, he explained, called 'djins' and is where we get our pantomime 'genies' from.

A city-born lad with a country-style education, Saeed was extremely susceptible to folk-lore and the unexplained, and it wasn't long before his quest for the mystical got him into a few difficulties from which he may never have recovered.

He took up meditation, which provided me with more opportunities to take the piss.  It was never my intention to be deliberately cruel to him, I just wanted him to see the reality of the situation he was getting drawn into before it was too late.

One day, he met me at a cafe, and I looked at him for a while then said,  "You have just been meditating, haven't you?  I have a vision of you sitting cross-legged on the floor with a pink blanket around your shoulders".

Astounded, he told me that this was true, and asked me how I had acquired my powers of perception, so I pulled a piece of pink fluff from the shoulder of his shirt and showed it to him.  The meditation bit was easy, as this was how he spent most of his spare time at home in those days.  Even faced with this banal proof of ordinariness, he refused to be disabused, and came to see me as a sort of guru or master from which he could learn a great deal about the spiritual world.

The more I explained to him that I was nothing of the sort, the more convinced he was that I was just giving him another test of faith, and his mental health started to deteriorate as a result.  He would come round to my flat and start talking of 'Divine Light', the bunch of pseudo mystics that had jumped on him at a weak moment, and he did this so regularly and often that I had to tell him to stop talking about it in my presence.  So he would just sit there, silently staring at the floor and not talking about anything.

After about 2 weeks of this, I just had enough and told him to stop coming around at all, unless we could hold an ordinary conversation as we did in the old days.  So he stopped visiting altogether.

A few weeks later, I ran into him on the street, and he was holding a pathetically small bag containing his worldly possessions, and looking like a broken man.  He told me that he was going back to his family in Tehran, and was just about to board the train which would take him to Heathrow airport, so we said our goodbyes.

About two days after he arrived back in Iran, the revolution took place, and the Shah was toppled in favour of the Ayatollah Khomeini.   This was the start of all the executions which were the purge of the revolutionary guard.

Saeed's father had been doctor to the Queen - the Shah's wife - so no matter who won the short battle that preceded the revolution, he or his family could not win.

I really hope that Saeed survived - everything.


  1. The Iranians (or Persians) who flee their native country, tend to be extremely nice people. The ones who remain at home; not so nice.

    1. Have you been to Iran, Cro? Is there any basis of truth in what you say about Iranians in general? I am genuinely interested.

    2. And have you any idea of the millions of ordinary Iranians who are doing their best to wrest control of their country from a bunch of mad mullahs? I am still genuinely interested as to whether or not you have an informed opinion on the matter.

    3. I met a lot of Iranians when I was living in London's Bayswater (they seemed to gather there at the time), and they were really amusing and interesting people. At the same time I had a friend who's father was posted to Tehran with the RAF, and he'd spent about 10 years living there. It was he who pointed out the difference, saying that if I'd met them on their home ground, I wouldn't think the same about them. Who knows!

    4. p.s. It was probably those 'Mad Mullahs' who changed the 'ordinary Iranians' into becoming the blood thirsty, hang-em-high, misogynistic, fanatics, that so many are today. As you may remember I was very involved in the Sakina Ashtiani case, and as a result was caught-up in all the dreadful human rights abuse that goes on every day in Iran. Who could blame the 'right-thinking' Iranians if they get out (probably before they're strung-up too).

  2. a bittersweet little tale
    I hope he survived too..... but the mixture of country/ unrest and mental illness, I suspect did not bode well

    1. Well, I have tried to find him since, but his last name is very common in Iran - Barzin. There is even a BBC journalist with the same name who now - I believe - lives in Essex. He was a bit of a sitting duck.

  3. do you have regrets for turning him away?

    1. I didn't turn him away, but I sometimes think I could have been more clever about it. The trouble was he thought I was a lot more clever than I really was. That's where the trouble started in the first place. Understand?

  4. I was acquainted with a young Iranian woman whose family was connected with the Shah. They were in the States when the Shah's government was overthrown. Her concern was that their US visas were going to run out, and they were having a really hard time getting anyone to want to renew them. They knew they had nothing to return to in Iran. I lost touch with her soon after and wondered if she and her family did indeed get to stay Stateside.