Isfahan, Iran and the Great Camel Adventure

My children love to hear the absolutely true story of the great camel adventure of 1976. I will get to it directly but first I must tell the story of how I can to live and work in the heart of Iran.

I had been working at the Bechtel construction site of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Station, near Vicksburg, Mississippi. I worked in the accounting department, and after two years I was getting restless. The Engineering department offered me a job, but the resident accounting manager would not approve the transfer. From that point on I was determined to leave Grand Gulf. I had pursued an overseas assignment only to have that rejected as well. I started sending out resumes to other companies.

Shortly thereafter, I was offered a job by Irvine, California-based Fluor Corporation. They were awarded a contract to build, at that time, the largest grassroots refinery in the world in Isfahan (Esfahan), Iran. I put my home up for sale, and the company had all my personal effects packed and placed in storage. I then headed off to L.A., where Fluor is headquartered, for my orientation. After a couple of days, my car was placed in storage and I was flying to the Middle East. I had indeed left Grand Gulf.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

Up to this time I had only flown once on an airplane, from Los Angeles to Biloxi in 1969. The only time I had ever been out of the country were short day trips just over the border to Tijuana, Mexico and Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. Looking back I am surprised this 19 year old wasn’t frightened stiff as he boarded the Scandanavian Airways Douglas DC-8-62 and headed to Copenhagen, Denmark. The orientation was mainly to prepare the expatriates for “culture shock.” Keep in mind this was 1976. World travel was not as common as today. Television had three channels. You didn’t have documentaries about other nations and, most importantly, the world was not nearly as westernized as it is today. Americans commonly experienced culture shock, to one degree or another, as they came to live and work in third world countries.

None of this ever phased me. I was always just as comfortable browsing the shops in the Bazaar of Isfahan, motorcycling the mountains of Bali, or exploring back streets of Hong Kong…as I was sitting in my living room in Mississippi. While Americans were given strong warnings about venturing into “dangerous areas” or places where there were few westerners, it somehow never registered with me. In hindsight, I suppose I was fortunate nothing ever happened to me. The truth is, I wanted to depart from the beaten path, meet locals, and see the real deal…not the tourist edition.

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, Denmark

At any rate, I made the flight over the North Pole to Copenhagen and quickly realized that Toto and I were not in Kansas anymore. This neophyte world-traveler failed to realize the language in Denmark is Danish. With apparently everyone around me speaking Nordic gibberish I thought, “This is going to be interesting.” However, I found someone at the travel desk who crudely spake my native tongue. From there I found out where I needed to catch a taxi to the SAS Royal Hotel, now called the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel. At the time it was the tallest building in Denmark. Yes, the camel story is coming soon.

Traveling is so enlightening. The next morning I discovered the origin of the phrase “continental breakfast.” The mainstay of modern American motel “morning snacks,” this lite breakfast had its origins in the countries of continental Europe, as opposed to the full breakfast of the British Isles. Well, a couple of little danish pastries may float your boat, but this Mississippi boy wants biscuits, grits, hash browns, eggs, pancakes and a fair serving of meat….all of it. How else can you expect a Southerner to make it through the day?

Tehran from my Hotel Window

Tehran from my Hotel Window

Our hungry boy took a taxi to the airport and boarded a smaller jet for the next leg of the adventure…Tehran. One of the world’s great metropolises, Tehran’s millions seemingly live in an area the size of Wiggins, Mississippi. It was so crowded it was hard to imagine you could drive the roads or walk the sidewalks. Driving seemed was akin to an amusement park ride, without the amusement. There was no need for radios because all everyone did was blow their horns. It was utter madness, but I considered it part of the adventure. Arriving at the hotel, I immediately headed to the restaurant after checking into my room. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw hamburger on the menu. Remember, traveling is an enlightening experience. Here I learned an invaluable lesson: never trust menus. I’m not exactly sure what resided between the two pieces of “bread” but I will tell you there was no mustard, ketchup or pickles to garnish it.

The following morning I took the puddle jumper to Isfahan, my final destination. Isfahan is the third largest city in Iran and sits near the center of the country located on the main north–south and east–west routes crossing Iran. It was once one of the largest cities in the world. The 2011 census put the population of the Greater Isfahan Region at 3,793,101.

Wikipedia states: “Isfahan flourished from 1050 to 1722, particularly in the 16th century under the Safavid dynasty, when it became the capital of Persia for the second time in its history. Even today, the city retains much of its past glory. It is famous for its Islamic architecture, with many beautiful boulevards, covered bridges, palaces, mosques, and minarets. This led to the Persian proverb “Esfahan nesf-e jahan ast” (Isfahan is half of the world).”

The Job

The construction project was outside of Isfahan. To get to the jobsite I had to catch a company bus each morning. It seems like it was about a 45 minute to an hour drive. My job was important, yet little fun. I was the supervisor of the timekeeping department. Under me, I had 64 Iranian timekeepers and two Armenian clerks, few of which spake even broken English. I was responsible for recording the time, and calculating the pay, for the thousands of workers on the construction project.

Isfahan Oil Refinery

Isfahan Jobsite

There were numerous time-booths surrounding the jobs. As the workers came in each morning and left each evening, their badge numbers would be recorded. Each week they were paid in cash. We would tally the time, calculate the pay, and place cash in an envelope with a pull-away sheet attached. As the men exited the time booths on payday, they would present their badge, put a thumbprint on the pull-away sheet, and be handed their envelope of cash. While it sounds simple and foolproof, nothing could be further from the truth. Remember, we are talking thousands of workers and huge sums of cash. I was given assistance of one expat per time-booth every payday to help ensure honesty. There is always corruption and we did the best we could. The day after payday was always miserable as we had to deal with irate Muslims who disputed their pay.

Things were so bad I was given a private driver to pick me up a half hour early and bring me home a half hour late, all to ensure I could keep a better watch on the operation. While ditching the bus was a plus, the extra hour a day really blowed. The days were already long, plus we worked six days a week. Since we were in a Muslim nation, the day off was Friday, not Sunday and most shops closed down.

Camel Story Getting Closer

Finding food was incredibly difficult. There were no Jitney Jungle, Piggly Wiggly or Winn-Dixie supermarkets in Isfahan. Scoring something to cook was all via street vendors and small mom and pop type shops. I actually think its a pretty kewl concept, but most everything was closed up by the time I arrived home. My permanent housing was on the corner of Vank Khorshid and Middle Nazar in the Armenian community of Julfa. There was a street vendor across the street who sold beer and pistachios. Americans were told not to drink the water, but beer was safe. As a side-note, the oldest evidence of beer is in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. When I was in Iran alcohol was legal but was outlawed with the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It was especially common in the Armenian sections of town because they were not Muslims.

Well I didn’t drink, but I did become addicted to pistachios. I would stop by and ask for a neem kilo which was just short of a pound. That, along with an occasional piece of fruit, was my supper for quite a few days. I finally got a day off and began to venture deeper into the Julfa community and stumbled onto Julfa Square. As I went from shop to shop I was determined to learn how to find edible food. All of the labels were in Farsi and few had pictures. A can of corn would not have the Green Giant or a photo of corn on the label. No worries mate. I learned a few words from my employees and I came prepared. I thought I had achieved Nirvana with my stash of fresh fruits and veggies along with a few canned goods…then I spotted a cooler in the corner of one shop. I walked over and noticed it had frozen whole chickens in it. I pulled one out and read the label. It said “Made In Mississippi” and I shouted so loud it scared the still-live chickens back home!

Things were improving. A lot of the Armenians opened their shops on Friday and the company hired an American butcher and set up a butcher shop on the jobsite where employees could buy beef. Far from perfect, at least I was eating more than pistachios.

The Camel Story At Last

I’ve always been one to joke around a lot. After a couple of weeks in Iran, I began to greet my co-workers with “Where’s The Camels?” After all, I had traveled halfway around the world to the Middle East and I hadn’t seen the first camel. It was more of a joke than anything, but some buddies from the Procurement Department and I decided to plan a trip into the countryside on one of our Fridays off. We secured three of the company buses and headed into the desert where our driver assured us we would locate the humped beast. I borrowed a 35 mm camera from a friend so I could hopefully bring back proof that the camels did, indeed, exist.

The kid found some camels

The kid found some camels

We finally arrived at a village where our driver made inquiry about the shotori. An elderly local, along with a youngster, climbed on my bus and guided us to some likely spots. We were off the buses and just about to give up when the youngster spotted some camels in the distance. We jumped back in and headed to the spot. There were 4-5 camels standing in an area walled in on three sides. As the buses pulled to a stop they unintentionally blocked the fourth side. I was the first one out and ran to the only camel wearing a saddle of sorts. Holding the camera in one hand, I asked my buddy to help give me a boost up. About the time I had successfully mounted this very tall mammal, the yanks started pouring out the buses creating quite a nervousness amongst the small herd. My camel started moving to and fro, then out of nowhere takes off galloping. Now I’m told camels do NOT jump. That is utter bulls3!+. My camel found part of the wall that had seriously crumbled and jumped it. I had black balls to prove it! He took off across the desert with all the herd in tow.

He galloped and galloped and galloped until the buses and the entire village was totally out of sight…and then galloped some more. The saddle was much cruder than a western saddle. There were no reins and the horn was a pair of crossed sticks. At least I had something to hold on to with one hand, the other still grasping my friend’s camera. As our team got further and further distant from my ride home, I kept pondering how to make the damn thing stop. A light bulb went off when I asked myself the question, “What would John Wayne do?” I drew back my right leg and kicked the camel hard in the head. That mother-humper stopped dead in his tracks. I nearly flew off. Well, that’s what John Wayne would do, right?

Next, I tried to get him to go back in the apparent direction from whence we originated. He wasn’t going anywhere. He liked that spot and decided to take up residence. I eventually climbed down and figured I’d start walking back. About that time, I heard a motor in the distance and thought the buses might be searching for me. I was wrong. It was a young Iranian on a old-style scrambler motorcycle. He was laughing his rag head off! I tried communicating in my broken Farsi but it was a lost cause. I then reached in my wallet, pulled out a 1000 rial note and spoke the international language of bribe. This he clearly understood. Using the secondary language of sign, I motioned to take his motorcycle and bring the buses back. Laughing the whole time, he agreed and pointed where the buses last were seen.

John and JT riding the desert horse

John and JT riding the desert horse

So the Americans saw me ride off into the sunset on a camel. Next, they saw me return on a motorcycle. I can only imagine what was going on in their heads. All I said was “I traded the camels for this neat bike!” They had caught up to the herd in the meantime and everyone got to take turns riding the camel and a horse…under the supervision of the locals.

The story spread pretty rapidly. Many people had photographed it and a couple had filmed it but since there was no film processing available locally at the time, I never got any of the copies. All that I have are photos taken with my buddy’s camera. The story was written up in the project’s monthly newsletter and was eventually picked up by Fluor’s worldwide magazine. Over the years mice have taken up nesting in some of my old storage boxes and the only writeup I could salvaged is the mouse-chewed project newsletter below.

Well there you have it – the great camel story. When people question its authenticity, I tell them the truth is so good there is no need for added frills and dressings!

Short-timer

While I enjoyed exploring Isfahan on my days off, work was becoming more and more miserable. I had a bad falling-out with my boss over housing and work problems. One argument led me to turn in my resignation. It is interesting to note that my boss was the father of one of my high school friends, Les Ingram, from Joliet, Illinois. Not only that, he was my next door neighbor. Three years later, in totally unrelated events, this man is my boss on the other side of the world. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Though there was a lot of strong anti-American sentiment in Iran, I made several indigenous friends, particularly among the Armenians. The locals were mostly kind to me and commented how I was “different” than other Americans. I later found out this related to the condescending attitude prevalent among expatriates. Before closing out this article I want to mention my three favorite sites in Isfahan: the Bazaar, the bridges and the Armenian churches.

The Bazaar & Naqsh-e Jahan Square

The Isfahan Grand Bazaar is the marketplace of Old Isfahan and is one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the entire Middle East. It contains a 2km vaulted street making you feel as though you are underground. It sits at the end of one of the largest squares in the world, the Naqsh-e Jahan, a.k.a. Shah Square.

Though parts of it are over 1000 years old, the square itself was constructed between 1598 and 1629 and includes the Ali Qapu Palace and Jameh Mosque (which dates back to 771). Shah Abbas decided to move the capital of his Persian Empire to Isfahan and consolidate his power. He initiated a huge building program and relocated a conquered half-million Armenians from historic Armenia to New Julfa across the river from the Isfahan of his day. They were an intelligent and very skilled people. Though they were Christians, they received protection to practice their faith as they built bridges, mansions and even…churches. More on that in a moment.

My Oldest Son, J.T. at The Isfahan Bazaar

My Oldest Son, J.T. at The Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is a seemingly endless stream of small shops full of hand-crafted goods, many of which were produced on the spot. Besides the many Persian Kilim rug shops and Termeh cloth shops, there were many artificers of brass. Also of particular interest to me were the inlaid Khatam woodcraft pieces. The craftsmen take tiny pieces of metal, bone and wood cut into geometric figures and shapes, and inlay them in wood. The ceramic and tile work is also off the charts. I tried to bring back a little sample of everything I could afford.

My favorite piece, which I still have, is a painting by single-hair brush technique on camel bone. That’s right, it’s painted with a single hair and the fine detail is nothing short of amazing. I brought back two large Persian rugs which I used for years. When I moved onto my sailboat I put them in storage and returned to find them destroyed by mice. The photo below shows handicrafts I brought back from Iran.

The Bridges & Churches

As I am writing this, there are two bridges built less than 70 years old being torn down near my house in Foxworth, Mississippi. What a blast it was each day crossing bridges which were centuries old and in no need of repair. The most beautiful is the Seo-So-Pol (Thirty-Three Arches in Farsi). Other old bridges include the Khajoo, Marnan, Joobi and the Shahrestan which dates back to the third century.

One of the most important attractions in Isfahan is the Vank Cathedral. One of several Eastern Orthodox churches in the area, it was literally a block from where I lived. Construction is believed to have begun in 1606 and completed about a half-century later. The lavish interior is covered with fine paintings, gilded carvings and rich tile work. Across the courtyard from the cathedral is a library and museum which contains many priceless treasures and artifacts. I lived within sight of one of the truly great treasures of the Old World, established when the United States still belonged to the Indians. Though the Armenians are an historically persecuted people, Vank Cathedral still stands as a monument to their culture.

John Wayne was a camel expert after all!

John Wayne was a camel expert after all!

Additional Notes:
1. Some of the image below are my personal photos, scanned postcards I brought back, and recent photos nicked from public-domain sites.
2. The 2014 Top 400 U.S. Contractors still show Bechtel and Fluor as the number one and number two  largest construction companies respectively. Fluor is currently based out of Irving, Texas.