In Isfahan mist-blue and melon-green tulip domes bloom in the desert. Indigo mosaic monuments rise above lines of white poplars. I'm on my way from Istanbul to India, tracing the route of the Asia Overland "hippie" trail. In the Sixties and Seventies an optimistic generation, traveling in ancient Austins, rainbow-colored double deckers and fried-out VW Kombis, hoped that this great journey would lead to a better world. Many of them paused here to appreciate the most splendidly proportioned city in the world. Its sublime beauty was said to bring--according to the English aesthete and travel writer Robert Byron--a "rare moment of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph."
In the soft light of late afternoon, the immense Royal (now Khomeini) Square spreads beyond a vaulted, labyrinthine bazaar. Its two great mosques--with majestic, recessed portals flanked by minarets--are positioned in near perfect symmetry with the buff, brick Ali Qapu Palace. I walk along the maidan's half-kilometer length, beneath tiered arcades the color of pale honey, among ice-cream vendors, tourist calèches and picnicking families. Fathers and sons gnaw on cobs of char-grilled corn. Mothers laze on tartan rugs, loosen cumbersome chadors, offer a glimpse of red hem or tight denim. Daughters release long braids of brown hair from beneath their scarves, then wade barefoot in the fountains. Byron wrote that the square's beauty lies in the contrast between a formal space and a romantic diversity of buildings. I'm reminded both of St Peter's in Rome, but with none of its bellied weightiness, and a soaring, tiled Jardin des Tuileries.
Ahead of me is the Masjid-i-Shah mosque, the culmination of a thousand years of Persian architecture, virtually untouched since its completion in 1638. Almost the entire surface of the vast, airy building is covered with exquisite glazed tiles. Swallows sweep across its tranquil inner courtyard, the arc of their flight as elegant as the line of receding arches. In a sunken porch, two schoolgirls sketch the intricate arabesques, adding dark-blue and golden-yellow watercolor, re-rendering the inscriptions. A caretaker arrives on an old bicycle, his reflection rippling in the wide ablutions pool.
In this serene space, unspoiled by the modern age, I consider the legacy of the Sixties travelers. Only a generation ago English girls hitchhiked alone across Iran. Free-spirited teenagers from Berlin and Boston were welcomed as honored guests in Baghdad. The hundreds of thousands of footloose Westerners, in flares and open-toe sandals, may have been the first movement of people in history traveling to be colonized rather than to colonize, but their values and comparative wealth did change places visited.
The host societies--especially those of rural Iran and Afghanistan--were for the most part defiantly conservative. I begin to wonder if the casual morality and humanism of those first independent travelers could have further polarized those countries, encouraging urban liberal minorities while insulting--even enraging--traditionalists and zealots, helping to stir the stern Islamic reawakening.
"Hey Mister, where are you from?" shouts a bold young man, shattering my thoughts. I ignore him, walking away from him and his friends. He calls after me again. "We are Pink Floyd fans."
This I had not expected.
"The lunatic is in my head," he quotes, arresting my step. "You lock the door, and throw away the key. There's someone in my head but it's not me."
The four men are engineering students from Mashhad on a study visit. From my research I know that a ring of weapon and defense industries--including the new Isfahan Nuclear Technology Centre--surrounds the city. The men are in their late teens, with pale skin from indoor lives, wearing clean white shirts and black slacks. One of them carries the latest issue of the Ferdosi University magazine--Fanoos Khial or Lantern of Dreams-- which features a six-page article on Pink Floyd.
"We know all about Roger Waters."
"And Steve O'Rourke going to that great gig in the sky."
Their knowledge of the band is better than mine. They gather around me, excited to show off their pop music expertise, telling me that a previous issue of the magazine was devoted to Dylan interviews and reviews.
"Hey mister, what is the song at the end of Dark Side of the Moon?" I am asked.
"If you listen to the very end of 'Eclipse' and turn the volume up really high, you hear faint music."
"Paul is dead?" I suggest.
"Some people do think it's a Beatles number."
"I heard it was classical music."
"You know these songs are over thirty years old," I say to the students.
Then in the vaulted main sanctuary, standing on a black paving stone under the great dome, the four young men start to sing. "And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too... " Other visitors stop and stare. Old men dozing in the cool of the madraseh sit up on their blankets. "...I'll see you on the dark side of the moon."
I'm shaken by their display, anxious of its impiety, denied my moments of both reflection and "absolute peace." Yet I'm also reminded of the long shadows the Sixties and Seventies cast over our fearful and protective era.
As the clear echo reverberates a dozen times around the sanctuary, a stranger pushes forward, not meeting our eyes. He puts down his mobile phone and, as if to nullify their irreverence, chants up in to the dome, "Allah Akbar." God is Great. Now his words ring around the dome.
The agitated caretaker is at our side, hissing at the students in Farsi, shepherding them out of the mosque.
"Mister, you know there is no dark side of the moon really, " one of them calls back to me, paraphrasing Pink Floyd's lyrics. "It's all dark."
Rory MacLean was born and educated in Canada. His six books, including UK Top Ten best-sellers Stalin's Nose and Under the Dragon, have challenged and invigorated travel writing, and--according to the late John Fowles--are among works that "marvelously explain why literature still lives". In his latest book, Magic Bus he follows the Asia Overland "hippie trail" through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan to India. MacLean also conducts regular writing workshops in London and Paris.
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