The western road from Tehran to the northern province of Gilan runs for about 270 miles up over the Elborz mountains till it reaches the Caspian port of Enzeli. Leaving Tehran on a clear Saturday morning, the first day of the week, the way is flanked by vendors — melon sellers and men offering an array of car seat covers which lie along the roadside like distended carpets. Before clearing Tehran the road runs past an enormous abandoned housing site, a mass of grey skeletons that run for over half a mile down to Mehrabad airport and which were under construction by the Bank Omran, a subsidiary of the Shah’s Pahlavi Foundation. Like almost all other building sites in Tehran, this one is now empty and silent.

The road then passes another Pahlavi relic, a reviewing stand where the Shah inspected his troops once a year. In the foothills to the north one can see a cluster of barracks which mark the shooting range of Chitgar where SAVAK executed political prisoners. Ninety miles on, at Qazvin, we are in one of the oldest cities in Iran. A legend has it that Qasvin was founded by the Prophet, but in fact it was established even earlier, in the third century AD, by a Sasanian king. Nearby is the castle of Alamut, the headquarters of the medieval Assassins. In the sixteenth century it was the capital of the Safavid monarchs before they transferred the court to Isfahan. The finest monuments of the town are the Ali Qapu or High Gate and the Friday Mosque built by the Safavids, which lie just off the main street. Qazvin was the scene of one of the more gruesome confrontations of the revolution, in which tanks ran over and killed some demonstrators. It is by appearances a strongly pro-Khomeini town. It is now Ramadan and no one eats or smokes in the street. Only one woman, a peasant in her fifties, is without the chador. Beyond Qazvin lies the village of Agha Baba, famous because here Reza Khan spent the night with his troops before marching on Tehran to stage the coup of February 21, 1921 that put the Pahlavis in power. The caravanserai where he slept was later turned into a museum. It is now closed; whether because of the revolution, or of Ramadan, nobody can say.

As the road winds over the mountains the scenery changes abruptly. We leave behind the arid plains of central Iran, and enter the lush countryside of the Caspian coastline. The land is green with fields of rice and tea, and with the thick forests, known in Persian as jangal, from which the English word jungle is derived. In the midst of one forested area, high on a mountain side, the trees have been arranged to depict the crown of the Pahlavis. No one has yet cut them down.

The Caspian area is unlike the rest of Iran in more than climate. Commercial agriculture developed earlier here, by exporting to Russia in the nineteenth century, and in 1920 a socialist republic was established here by communists and Islamic nationalists. It lasted until the autumn of 1921 when Reza Khan marched in to crush it. The political climate is much more secular than on the central plains, and although there are some pictures of Khomeini they are far less prominent than in Tehran itself. Much of the area has, in recent years, come to rely on tourism. The revolution, plus the prohibitions of the Islamic republic, have put a stop to that, thereby adding to the reservations of the local people about the advent of the Islamic regime.

In Rasht, the largest town in Gilan, the main square is dominated by a large Russian-style town hall. A banner proclaims the key dates in the Islamic revolutionary calendar: Ashura — the mass demonstrations of December 1978; 15 Khordad — the pro-Khomeini protests of June 1963; 17 Shahrivar — the massacre in Tehran’s Jaleh Square on September 8, 1978; 21 Bahman — the uprising of February 1979. Another poster depicts the Islamic revolution smashing its two enemies — the Stars and Stripes, and the Hammer and Sickle. Yet a distinctly secular current is also visible. Many posters are of one of the most famous of all Rashtis, the poet Khosro Golesorkhi, who was executed by the Shah in 1975. And in the streets vendors offer copies of a local radical paper, Jangal, that harks back to the insurrection of 1920. One slogan calls for “death to Bazargan.”

As one approaches Enzeli the road signs appear to be daubed with protest paint. Under the Shah the town was called Bandar Pahlavi (Pahlavi Port) and the local people have painted out this name and restored the original. The town itself was a staging post in the interwar period for travelers from Tehran to Europe: they spent the night here before taking the boat to Baku in Russia and then going on a ten-day train journey through Moscow and Warsaw. In the old hotel, the atmosphere is of Russia in the pre-revolutionary period, a faded provincial elegance reminiscent of Chekhov. The bill is written in French. Breakfast is served under a shady tree in the quiet courtyard.

In the harbor Russian ships are unloading cargo: some have come from other Caspian Sea ports, others from the Baltic via the Soviet canal system. The Shah’s yacht, the Shahsawar, lies at anchor. It was here that the Red Fleet of Adm. Raskolnikov arrived in May 1920 to assist the Persian revolutionaries and to counterattack against the British and the White Russians who were threatening the Bolsheviks.

Now on the sea front young men sell the papers and cassettes of the Fedayi guerrillas. Others practice shooting at pictures of the Shah and Hollywood film stars. We ask what happened during the revolution in Enzeli: nothing very much, it seems, until the regime was about to fall in Tehran itself.

The coastal area groans under the weight of Islam. Hotels are deserted, construction sites are abandoned. At one hotel a woman had jumped in her bikini into the swimming pool and the Islamic Guards had come and pointed their guns at her, telling her to get out. She refused. So they emptied the water from the pool. At Ramsar the casino, where English croupiers enticed the petro-bourgeoisie, is locked up; a picture of Khomeini hangs askew from a chandelier. The once beautiful view down an avenue of trees to the sea is now blocked by an ugly block of flats. But people on the beach can listen to women singing: Radio Baku comes over loud and clear across the water.

Over dinner of local specialties — sturgeon kebab and a mixture of aubergines and garlic called amir qassemi — we ask the waiter if he hasn’t a bottle of vodka hidden away. “Now we have Islam,” he says firmly. The owner of a wayside cafe makes us park our car half a mile down the road and eat behind a curtain to avoid the Islamic Guards who cruise up and down the road: no matter that the Qur’an allows travelers to eat in Ramadan. A Turcoman fisherman points to his banknotes and the portrait of the Shah, remarking that if “Agha,” i.e., Khomeini, can produce money with his picture on it, he will be accepted; otherwise….

Eastward from Enzeli a dirt track climbs off the main road into the mountains. Here lies the village of Siakal, scene of the first action by Fedayi guerrillas in February 1971. The village, surrounded by fields of tea, is more prosperous than might have been imagined: the new road has opened trade and today is market day. The men are at a horse auction, the peasant women, with their hair caught in huge combs like Goya’s Spanish ladies, sell onions, tomatoes and sabze, Persian greenery, on the sides of the street.

Here there is almost no sign of Khomeini. The only banners in the street are from the Mojahedin and Fedayi guerrillas and a local shop serves as the Fedayi headquarters.

A young man takes us to the building where the 1971 attack occurred. It is a rundown two-storey building with nothing to indicate the symbolic importance it later had. The police moved to another newer post some time later and it is now a half-used local government office. Fifteen or twenty police were there when the guerrillas burst in and fought their way to the first floor. The two Fedayi prisoners whom the guerrillas hoped to rescue had already been transferred elsewhere. The attackers escaped, but were later caught by the police — betrayed by a local village headman. After that the Fedayi concentrated on urban guerrilla struggle. Siakal could not become their Sierra Maestra, or Yenan. The young man who takes us round had been 10 years old at that time. He was in the cinema when they heard shooting at around ten in the evening. They were told it was the work of kharabkar, terrorists. Only much later did he learn who was really responsible.

The capital of Gilan is Lahijan, an inland town where the main square is dominated by portraits of Mirza Kuchik Khan, the leader of the guerrillas in 1920. The local hospital has been renamed after Mossadeq, and the Fedayi and the Mojahedin have large offices on the main street. The town appears prosperous, more like southern Europe in the 1960s than the baked-mud villages of much of Iran. The local sweets shop has modern refrigerated display cases: the owner tries to sell me his specialty, shaqa gol, a jam made from the roots of the iris, which he assured me was an aphrodisiac. I settle for another Gilaki speciality, made from the petals of orange blossom.

On the way back, we make a detour up a mountain track to visit the town of Kelardasht. The road there passes underneath remote Kurdish villages spread over the vast mountain sides whose arak was famed before the revolution. Kelardasht is the site of one of the Shah’s palaces and local history has it that the Shah escaped from his private airfield here in 1953 when he fled the country just before the CIA coup. Because the local people tried to swarm onto the runway and block his departure, the monarch refused to give them any government funds for development later on. Another unwelcome guest at Kelardasht was Gen. Nasseri, the head of SAVAK from 1965 to 1978, who was executed in February 1979. His yellow-colored villa lies just outside the town, a curiously modest building for such a grasping man.

The route back to Tehran goes through the Kendavan tunnel, built at the time of Reza Khan, and it is to another harsher and more arid world that one emerges on the other side. Even the radio at the roadside coffee house carries a stronger message. The head of radio and TV, Sadeq Qotbzadeh, is violently attacking the left-wing opposition for their role in the recent elections to the constitutional assembly. Two days later the prominent democratic paper, Ayandegan, is closed, and within a week all left-wing papers and offices throughout the country have been shut down. A month later there are reports of violent clashes in the streets of Rasht. In October fishermen in Enzeli fight with Islamic Guards who are, they claim, interfering with their work. In 1920 and again in 1971 new political options were opened up by events in Gilan. What does the future hold, this time around?

How to cite this article:

Fred Halliday "Letter from Gilan," Middle East Report 86 (March/April 1980).

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