From North Clare to the Bagfh Desert

Frank Golden launches his new ‘If You Tolerate This’ collection at the Ennis Book Club Festival. Here he writes about his love for barren and beautiful places

IRAN was a place of interest since the early 80’s when I lived and worked in Kuwait. I had gone there to earn some quick money and to pay off some debts.

It was in 1981/82 during the Iran/Iraq war. The regular bombardment of the port of Basra was audible in the coastal enclosure where we lived further up the coast.

Every day we would be driven through the desert to Al-Wafrah which was in the neutral zone between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

This was the area where US troops dug before their offensive against Sadaam Hussein in 1990.

Kuwait was an unattractive society on all levels, but the desert was beautiful. The first heavy rain in a decade fell that first spring and the desert bloomed virtually overnight.

It gave me a love of places that are barren and austerely beautiful. Iran and Iraq were banned in the early 80s and it would take me another 40 years before the dream of visiting Iran came true.

At the end of April 2019, my partner and I flew to Tehran via Moscow. The Iranian rial was in freefall. Sanctions crippled the country in terms of the supply of basic medical equipment, pharmaceuticals, auto parts, the list was endless.

And Iran’s oil-for-goods barter deal with the Chinese meant the country was flooded with cheap Chinese goods, jeopardizing artisanal trade in major bazaars across the country.

The tourist trade was practically non-existent. People wanted to talk to us at every turn. If you sit down, people gather and chat with you.

The conversations were universally political. Those who spoke to us favored the separation of church and state. Those who supported the regime were less likely to talk to us.
Dissident conversations like the ones we had in Isfahan and elsewhere were tolerated.

But large public demonstrations were violently repressed by the regime. This happened regularly in 2017, 2019, 2021.

Thus, the forms of dissent are more covert, there are days of protest against the hijab organized on the Internet, or nose operations – men and women – where the desired result is a “westernized” nose, which is considered a clash with the regime.

This first night in Tehran, we stayed in a hostel on the north side of the city.

The receptionist was a young Afghan playwright named Amin Najafi, who had fled Afghanistan four years earlier.

Upon hearing that we were from Ireland, he spoke of his love for Synge and McDonough. His own plays have been performed in Kabul and Tehran. At the moment he is trying to travel to Germany (see link below).

For over a month we traveled south staying in cheap hostels in the legendary cities of Isfahan, Shiraz and Yadz. Isfahan was memorable for many reasons, including the Shah’s Grand Mosque, but it’s the ancient bridges over the Zayunderud River with elaborate gardens on either side that will long be remembered.

One of these bridges, the Khaju Bridge, which dates back to the 16th century, has two levels. In the lower part are twelve alcoves with extraordinary acoustics.

Every evening, acapella singers gather here and singing competitions are held. With the river rushing and carols blaring into the midnight air, it was a privilege to witness it.

Outside Isfahan, atop Sofeh Mountain, sean-nós-like chants were broadcast into the night sky from the summit.

We found ourselves on the Isle of Hormuz just as the Strait crisis was unfolding.

The US warship Abraham Lincoln headed for the Gulf of Oman, while Iranian navy ships massed offshore. Life in the port city of Bandar Abbas seemed to be proceeding normally.

But the Iranians have already seen it all. In 2019, the Iranians we met saw little prospect for substantial change, either in terms of regime change or the lifting of sanctions. But they
were not intimidated by the intransigence and conservatism of those around them.

The Burren was a great companion landscape to come home to, holding as it does an echo of the desert I first experienced in 1981.

If you tolerate it ends with a series of poems about Iran.

Contribute to Amin Najafi’s GoFundMe campaign here

About John McTaggart

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