EXTRACTS FROM ONE OF STELLA CORBIN’S LETTERS:
Teheran the 22 September 1945
Translated by Matthew Evans-Cockle
I hoped to find a letter upon arrival here on the 15th but nothing… I wanted to write before leaving Istanbul. The last few days have been a whirlwind of pressing concerns, errands, visits. Ten days before our departure, already tired from all the moving, Henry comes down with an abscess in his teeth. Anxious about this recurrence he makes his mind up to consult another dentist who decides to make up a set of dentures.
Finally at dawn on the 6th of September we make a last crossing of the Bosphorus, enchanting in the early morning sunlight, the railroad hugs the Sea of Marmora as far as Izmit. One might imagine oneself traveling along a lakeshore. Little by little we climb to the Anatolian plateau, its more arid, there are several large villages. Night falls, and around 11 we can see the lights of Ankara. There, a young blond woman boards the train. She is accompanied by a number of Chinese who wish her a friendly farewell. We are a little intrigued.
The next day a little before crossing through Tarsus, we pass through Hidge: first truly oriental town with the beds installed upon the terraced rooftops, the eucalyptus… A very lovely ascent across the Taurus, and suddenly between two enormous boulders we see, in a flash, the entire Cilician plain. Again, the plain, with its olive trees and its vines. We go to bed, furious at the thought of the customs and border crossing we will have to endure at 1 in the morning. Fortunately Henry had come armed with his “traveling papers” which help facilitate the border-crossings. At least, so we imagine!
“Wake-up” in Aleppo around 7 o-clock. From the train the city’s appearance is rather deceiving, we can just make out the silhouette of the citadel where Suhravardî died. The train reverses direction and we find ourselves once again in Turkey: new customs and passport formalities.
45 degrees in the shade all day as the train travels along the Syrian border. Syria, with its hamlets of proud nomadic Kurds, on the one side, and on the other side, block housing and Turkish soldiers. Nonetheless, the train stops in the middle of the countryside for a poor woman lain out on a litter. For one fleeting moment, a glimpse of human grandeur.
Night falls on this desert landscape and catches us chatting with a charming British
Captain -ever melancholic poet, composing quatrains as well in Arabic as in English-, and a young Syrian customs agent refusing all but Syrian traditional dress and passionately seeking his Arabic past. And yet, he is Christian, wants to belong to an independent state, considers the West without bitterness while at the same time pointing out its shortcomings -contrary to the British Captain’s father, administrator of progress, denying any and all Islamic contribution to “civilization”.
Around 2 in the morning, the train once again crosses into Syrian territory: new passport and customs check from which we are spared, I believe, thanks to an awakened sympathy between the British military administration and those of the “young states”.
In the morning, Mosoul. Hoarse cries of the Arabs. The camels and sheep disappear from this desert landscape –suffocating heat. We are a lonely few in the restaurant wagon, abandoned by its chef who, suffering from a terrible migraine, is being tended to by the British Captain. It’s a little unbridled and everyone retires half-nude beneath the fan in their room. Only the rich Kurds, swords at their sides, seemed not to suffer from the heat. The young blond woman, who had boarded the train at Ankara found their provocative demeanor somewhat alarming, and preferred to take refuge in my company. Information sought after from the Captain, these gentlemen were reputed smugglers.
With the first stands of palms we are at our windows, but the air that we imagined fresher, at the sight of verdure, remains stifling. We make out the large Shiite mosque with its minarets and golden cupolas sparkling in the sunlight.
The train stops, not at any station, but in the middle of the desert sands. We are in Baghdad, we are told, and the wave of thickset porters rising out of the sands convinces us of the fact. Happily, a certain agent Cook saves us, and under the protection of the secretary of the Iranian League we arrive at the Semiramus Hotel. In English Colonial style with the indispensable fan, a lovely lawn runs right down to the Tigris. Beyond, lie the palms. A small crescent moon above the stand of palms is reflected in the calm waters of the Tigris dotted here and there with small boats. On the horizon, through the palm trunks, the red-flaring sun throws its lively hue. It is at this moment, that the British Captain takes his departure, leaving us an envelope upon which are written three verses, reminiscent of biblical passages:
By the twin river
I be thought me of the weeping
And the willows and the harp.
That séjour in Baghdad, which we had so worried over, has left us nothing but enchanting memories. Was it the visit to Ktiesiphon whose splendid Sassanide vault in one single motion, rises up higher than the palms, was it the encounter at Ktesiphon with that cultivated young Arab? In the village, he takes us to the mosque of Salman the Pure: “let me live and die as you have, faithful friend, you who have not betrayed”, and after having chased away a pack of little scamps he invites us to his home for tea.
Pilgrimage to the mausoleum built for Faysal, friend to Lawrence of Arabia and to Massignon
Arrived on the Sunday, late afternoon, we leave on the Thursday at dawn. 1000 km to travel in a rental car on rough jolting roads. It’s the ancient route linking Bagdad, Kermanshah and Hamadan (once Ecbatan) all the way to the Iranian border: arid landscape, some rare villages almost visible across the nascent dawn. Long lines of donkeys or of camels, water sources signaled by the willows or the poplars.
After Sarpul e Schab begins the rough ascent towards the pass and then towards Kermanshah. We are struck with vertigo on this road once called “the Porte of Zagres” with the grandiose grotto of Khosraw II at Takht Bostan. Shortly afterKermanshah in a mountainous, arid landscape rises the towering peak of Bisutun, single boulder rising up 1000 metres, once without doubt a “place of the gods” chosen by the great Darius for the engraving of his famous trilingual inscription proclaiming his triumph. We are assailed by the history, the grandeur of the site… and by fatigue.
We pass the night at Hamadan, the Ecbatana of seven walls, capital of the Median and then of the Achaemenidian empire, but as in the case of Kermanshah we see only the hotel, as having arrived at night, rather foundering, we leave the next day at dawn so as to finish the final leg of our journey and beat the full heat of the afternoon. Teheran, heralded by the splendid Demavend, awaits us. Giant mountain of some 6000 meters, ancient volcano, for Henry the symbol of so many dreams. This same Demavend appears already in Henry’s childhood, in a drawing upon the cover of one of his school exercise books.
We ask the chauffeur to let us off in front of the French embassy, for we have forwarded advance notice of our arrival to the consul, an old friend from the days at the Oriental Language School in Paris. Alas! We never thought we would arrive on a Friday off reserved for our consul’s weekly hunt.
Fortunately for us, the ambassador (a charming man) fairly bohemian, seeing from afar a pair of dust-covered voyagersapproaching, came out to meet us and invited us in for a meal in his garden. He had as his guest a priest from the Russian church, who had at one time been an officer of the Tsar’s marine, an astonishing character who, while we all sipped our coffee, proposed to us the temporary rental of a little apartment in the house of one of his parishioners. It is from there that I am writing you.