Ardebil is a dusty town in the north west of Iran, not far from the Russian border. In 1975, not long before the surprise overthrow of Shah Reza Mohammad Pahlavi, it was a place of some strategic importance. Perhaps it still is, even though the Shah has passed on and Russia is not what it was. Anyway, I was there because my wife and I were visiting the province of Azerbaijan under the aegis of one of her pupils, Dr. Jahangir Harjaliloo.
Dr. H. was a Paris-educated, middle-aged man of singular affability. In itself, this is nothing unusual in Iran, where a great deal of smiling and giggling goes on. But Dr. H had the ability - rare in that country - to laugh at himself. This, plus his pretty execrable English, made him an amusing and charming companion. In addition, we had been delighted to find that his apparently fanciful accounts of his family’s lavish possession in Azerbaijan had all been true.
We had arrived in Ardebil after a long trip which had taken us through Dr. H’s ancestral lands in the Turki-speaking north west of Iran. Most recently, this had involved a couple of nights with nomads whose families had ‘belonged’ to his grandfather, the one whose several wives had included a twelve-year old Russian princess. So, whatever other amenities it might lack, at least Ardebil offered us the prospect of a bed, rather than a rug on the ground. Possibly without fleas. This aside, I was not looking forward to this part of the trip. For Dr. H had confided in me that his brother-in-law - Parviz - was the local head of SAVAK, the Shah’s deservedly notorious secret police. The people to whom teachers reported the families of young children who let slip any sort of remark about their parents’ views of the government. The people who caused intelligent, well-informed Iranians to claim that ‘In matters of politics, I am completely ignorant’.
I had worried about how we would be treated and how I, in turn, would deal with a man responsible for repression, torture and, quite possibly, murder. But, of course, the subject never came up and we were accorded lavish hospitality by his attentive wife. It was surprisingly easy to forget my concerns and, in the 48 hours we were there, there were only two incidents of note. Firstly, I was advised by a gratified hostess that the meat about which I had made the obligatory appreciative remarks was bulls’ testicles. Secondly, a passing stranger joined me under the bonnet of my car and, having taken liberties with my dip-stick, advised me, with Persian sternness, that I had ‘too much’ oil in the engine. Naturally, I ignored this impertinence, only to discover - many expensive miles later - that he had meant ‘too little’. If I had known his name, I would have called my new engine after him.
And so Ardebil faded into just one of many memories of a memorable trip and it’s quite possible that its name might never again have forced its way into my consciousness. But, in fact, it came up some months later, when my wife and I were attending a function at Dr. H’s house, probably something connected with a family wedding. As ever, the men were congregating down one side of the room and the women were aligned down the other. But Dr. H was sitting rather forlornly in one of the corners, something highly unusual in a man of his conviviality. So I sat down beside him and asked what the matter was.
Dr. H prevaricated a little but then asked me whether I remembered our stay in Ardebil. Naturally, I said that I did and asked him what it had to do with tonight’s festivities. Dr. H. looked across the room towards his smiling brother-in-law, Parviz, and whispered, “He’s such a nice man. So good with his family. I don’t understand how he can do it.”
Assuming that he meant run the local SAVAK and struggling for an adequate response, I said that perhaps Parviz ran a benign ship in Ardebil.
“No, he doesn’t”, said Dr. H. “I was in Ardebil last week and when I called at his house he wasn’t there. So I went to his office. They let me in at the gate and told me to go straight to his office in the main building. But to get there I had to walk through the snow up a long drive.”
Dr. H. stopped and caught his breath. Raising his head and looking into my eyes, he continued slowly and painfully, “The ground on either side of the drive was frozen solid and the swimming pool had many centimetres of ice on it. And in the pool were 10 or 12 naked men, up to their necks in the ice. Dying or already dead,”
With my spine tingling but my mind numbed, I looked back into Dr. H’s eyes and saw that a tear was rolling slowly down his cheek. It dropped into his orange juice, where it glanced off an ice cube and made a small, fleeting ripple in the liquid.
“How can he do it?”, he asked again. “He is such a nice man to his family.”
Completely at a loss for an answer, I looked across the room at Parviz. He caught my gaze, smiled and gave a small wave. Instinctively, I raised my hand to wave back.