Suse, capitale de l’Elam, est situe’ dans la province autrefois fertile du Khuzistan qui prolonge, en Iran, la grande plaine arrosee par le Tigre et l’Euphrate. Aussi sa civilization est elle plus etroitement lies a Celle de la Mesopotamie qu’a celle du Plateau Iran…. Au 13 siecle la celebre ville dont les vestiges presentent un exemple de continuite peut-etre unique dans l’histoire des civilisations, fut abandonee…. Il y a une trentaine d’annees, encore Suse ne comptait plus que quelques maisons groupees autour du tombeau de Daniel. Depuis, cet humble village ne cess de s’agrandier.Peut-etre qu’un jour, graceaux travaux d’irrigation entrepris dans la region, l’antique cite’ retrouvera-t-elle l’éclat de sa grandeur passée.
A brochure of the French Archeological Mission in Iran, 1971
Listen again. One Evening at the Close
Of Ramazan, ere the better Moon arose,
In that old Potter’s Shop I stood alone
With the clay Population round in Rows.
And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not;
And suddenly one more impatient cried –
“Who is the Potter, pray, and who the Pot?”
Then said another – “Surely not in vain
“My Substance from the common Earth was ta’en
“That He who subtly wrought me into Shape
“Should stamp me back to common Earth again.”
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
The French archeological mission called it le temoin or “the witness,” the great outcropping of earth and rock that, some distance to the west of the towering Citadel, alone preserved the original height of plateau before excavations were begun a century earlier. To the traveler crossing the Mesopotamian plain, the witness, the Citadel and, indeed, the entire mile-long mound of Susa appeared to rise to a great height; it was not difficult to imagine how imposing the succession of great cities had been, crowned with splendid edifices and probably set in palm-groves and cypress gardens with range after range of the Zagros Mountains rising in the blue distance to snow-capped peaks.
Now it was a vast desolation, diminished and mutilated by man, time and weather. The ruins were divided into six chief quarters. There was the Citadel, its steep-walled pink-bricked ramparts dominating the little village of Shush below and the plain for miles around, built seventy years ago to protect the earlier archeologists from attacks by marauding Arab Bedouin tribes from the desert. To the east of the Citadel, and separated from it by a large depression known in ancient times as the Bazar, sprawled the ruins of the Achaemenian palaces. Here some two hundred workmen toiled, reconstructing the foundation bricks of the palace of Darius the Great, on the basis of its charter found inscribed on stone only a year earlier in February, 1970. Beyond was the Apadana or throne room, a vast structure supported by 72 stone pillars each 22 meters high, identical to the great hall at Persepolis. Some distance to the south, half-hidden in the furthest reaches of the mounds, portions of two Elamite cities had bean excavated, one going back 4,000 years and a second, containing a vast necropole or burial ground, 5,500 years. Below, almost in the village itself, just across the Shauer River from the central square in what had been two years before a wheat field, another group of fifty workmen were unearthing from just a few feet below the surface a pleasure palace built by Ataxerxes II (ascended the throne in 404 B.C.)
While the Citadel appeared to have been inhabited without interruption from prehistoric times down to the Graeco-Persian age, the existence of the towering fortress had precluded excavation there and the oldest dig at Susa was le temoin, which early expeditions had named the “Acropole.” Here giant cuts undertaken over a century by such French as Dieulafoy, de Morgan, Professor Ghirshman and the Comte de Mecquenem had uncovered two prehistoric periods, the earliest dating back to 6000 B.C., 2,000 years after man settled on the plain. Just above the prehistoric zone was a layer of earth some six feet deep in which nothing was found, suggesting the prehistoric city had been destroyed by some higher race. In the next or Archaic zone were found tables of unbaked clay with proto-Elamite cuneiform writing dating from about 4,000 B.C. and in the levels of earth above began the era of written history.
Thus the Acropole, with its diggings reflecting all the ages of civilized man, was rather like a time chart, but not, since digging techniques in the early days were often rudimentary, as exact a one as modern archeologists desired. Some of the greatest treasures of all archeology had been discovered at Susa – the Code of Hammurabi, the stele of Naram Sin, the pyramid of Manishtusu and some of the most exquisite pottery ever designed. It was thus decided to peel away the edges of the cuts made by the early French expeditions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to establish the exact stratigraphic position of the masses of material discovered at Susa in the past.
It was extremely delicate work, especially since the prehistoric Elamite architecture was mud brick which crumbled very easily until the stone palaces of the later Achaemenian kings. One had to carefully clean off layer by layer of earth, inch by inch, from the vast cut in the mountain of erosional debris, applying the latest scientific tests to the substance of the earth, the colors of the soil. To make the work more difficult, the various time zones were not always clearly differentiated, since many of the early inhabitants of Susa had rebuilt their houses from the debris around them, some of it already thousands of years old. Bones had to be sent to Teheran for analysis. Seeds subjected to the developing science of paleobotany to see if the grain had been irrigated and whether it was already domesticated or still grew wild.
So the work progressed slowly, but in this way a relatively accurate sequence of events or “time chart” was being established.
On this particular morning it was very cold, le temoin itself blocking the suns warming rays from the small group of men at work. These included Alain Le Brun, a frizzy, grey-haired but still youthful archeologist; his assistant, Gilvert, [The worker’s version of Gilbert] and their seven workmen, all of them brought from Arrak, a town on the Iranian plateau halfway to Tehran since the local Arabs were too garrulous, sometimes fought among themselves and were not adverse to slipping coins or whatever they found that might be sold for a few riyals to tourists, into their pockets.
“…cinque metre longue et cinque metre de large, n’est pas?,” the archeologist, who was known as “Monsieur Alain” to the workers, was telling his assistant. Then he turned and spoke to Suleiman, the Persian foreman, in the Farsi language, “Dig this deeper. What’s he doing?” Alain gestured toward the gully far below – at the 6000 B.C. level – where one of the workmen, Terabi, sat filing down the spout of an earthen water jug used by the Persian laborers.
“He wants to fix that water jug,” Suleiman, a sunburnt man with his head wrapped in a green cloth against the dust, told the Frenchman. “If the lid doesn’t fit tight, Monsieur, all the dogs, foxes and jackals come and drink our water at night. We leave the water there and we can’t close it now. He’s filing it so we can fit the lid on.”
Alain said nothing but walked to the edge of the cut and shouted down at Terabi, “Don’t do that now. The watchman can fix it tonight. You should be working now.” With that, Alain and Gilvert, wrapping sweaters around their shoulders, went off to talk, pacing back and forth near the dig, their hands in their back pockets and their eyes studying the ground, as was their custom.
When they moved out of eye range one of the workmen, a dark, huskily-built youth known as the “Turk,” jumped with rough gusto down the levels of the cuts crumbling a bank and sending up puff clouds of dust.
Suleiman at once reproofed him. “Monsieur see you, trouble. Don’t you go down like that every time.”
“That’s all right,” the Turk grinned. “Monsieur is not here.” “Go around on the side.”
Kairola, one of the older men, looked up. “Here, Turk, you come and help me dig.”
“No, my job is to put dirt in the basket and throw it into the cart.” Along with Safar Ali, a blond youth with a light-brown moustache and broad, somewhat heavy shoulders, the Turk had early staked out a job for himself that, while more physically demanding, was not so tedious as the slow chipping away of the earth. This task fell to Suleiman, the foreman, and three older men: Kairola, Terabi and Uncle Feruz. A 17 year-old, whom everyone called “Boy,” and who did odd jobs, completed the small work crew.
“Before when I came on the train,” the Turk announced in a loud voice, “one woman wanted to sit by me. I told her, ‘Don’t sit by me; go over there.’ She said, ‘Oh. I didn’t know you are a Turk; I thought you were a Persian.’ Hey, Suleiman, move that way. I want to clean under you.”
Alain and Gilvert returned and stood watching the workmen.
Turk: Put one more basket in the wagon, Ali, and let’s push it down.
Alain: Don’t cut like that’, Suleiman. Just peel it off. Be careful. Be careful.
Suleiman – There’s only one brick and below it is dirt.
Alain: Yes, I know.
Suleiman – Two years, three years, I work for you. You like me, I like you, is good.
Suleiman – C’mon, quick, Ali, gather this dirt
Uncle Feruz: What is the other gentleman’s name?
Alain – Monsieur Gilvert.
Suleiman: How old are you?
Suleiman: I’m thirty-nine years.
Turk: I’m twenty-three.
Suleiman: Here, Turk, clean it up, clean the dirt off, quick.
(The men continue to work as they talk.)
Terabi: One man, Italian. I worked for him. I was assistant to him. He was a carpenter. He worked on Chogha Zanbil.
Turk: How do you say, “Bring this” in Italian?
Terabi: I asked this man, Italian. I said “Monsieur.” He said I am not monsieur. I am signor.” That man, he came to my house and said, “How many boys do you have?” He kissed all the children and then, he kissed all their pictures too, He was very happy man this Italian. He can do every job – pipeman, carpenter, mason, bulldozer, tractor driver, he can do every job. Any job he like. He can do everything.
Turk: is he still in Iran?
Terabi: No, he’s in Italy. He went home.
Turk: You poured out all the water? You didn’t leave a little in the jug?
Turk: Before I worked as a mason’s helper. Too much I’m working. This is a lazy job, like playing. The men working over there on the Apadana they have two men just to push the wagons and two men to shovel the dirt out. My old boss, that mason, don’t nobody want to work for him now. Very hard work and he don’t give you good money. In my village. Sometimes I help this mason. He only puts down the lines and a few bricks and after that drinks tea and finish the work for him. He starts it out and I put bricks on top.
Terabi: That water jug looks old but it came from the bazar in Shush.
Turk: I heard that Shush once reached all the way to Shushtar, Seventy-two kilometers. A rooster hopped from one roof to another all the way.
Uncle Feruz: It was a big city in olden times.
Kairola: You know Rustam when he first went to Hindustan, his mother told him to kill a wolf. She told him she’d put his name and what he did in Hindustan in the news. His father, he went first to Hindustan and killed that Baber. His father went to Hindustan and somebody said, “You don’t kill like that. If Rustam comes, we’ll give him a sword and maybe he’ll kill him.”
Terabi: Rustam’s dead. He was a big man. He roamed around England, Hindustan, everywhere.
Kairola: When Rustam, he went to Hindustan, he told the King he wanted to kill that Baber. The king said, “You must have a special weapon, a kanjar.” One time Baber threw Rustam on the ground but Rustam used a Kanjar and killed him. He killed that Baber and brought it home for a cloak. Rustam had this magic cloak…
Turk: You know about his son fights Rustam, without knowing it. His son fights Rustam and throws him to the ground and Rustam says, “You can throw me three times to the ground. If you can do that, the third time you can kill me.” But after two times Rustam, he threw the boy on the ground instead and killed him. He didn’t know it was his son.
Alain: (impatiently) This box is full. Suleiman, have the men bring me two more. Suleiman: Turk, Ali, bring boxes if you want to tell Rustam’s story, why don’t you go and tell it in the teahouse?
Kairola: What time now please?
Suleiman: Ten twenty.
Turk: Take it easy there, Uncle Feruz. Be careful and don’t cut your finger with that pick. You might cut if off.
Alain: This is very interesting, Suleiman. Easy, easy there on the brickwork with your pick.
Turk: How much they pay a man at the Apadana?
Suleiman: Eighty-eight riyals all day. Sometimes they pay overtime.
Turk: My friend, he says he won t come work over here with me. I tell him, No, I got an easy job.” Here we work seven to twelve. Two hours for lunch. Quit at four. Wash. Take a round in the-bazar. It’s all right How many years are you, Uncle Feruz.
Uncle Feruz: I don’t know how many. Many.
Ali: You put one basket, Turk, and I’ll put one. Easy, easy. One time you go first and one time I’ll go first.
Turk: (grinning) Oh, you son of a bitch, Ali, you think you’re working too much. Should I carry this box to the castle, monsieur?
Alain: No. Leave it over there with the toolbox. Did you break this tile? It is broken now.
Terabi: No, Monsieur, it was broken when I uncovered it.
Suleiman: It seems you dug too far. You are not so experienced as yet.
Turk: Let Suleiman play with it. He is more experienced. Whatever more you try to do, the worse it gets.
Uncle Feruz: My feet are frozen. (He sneezes)
Suleiman: Why do you sneeze so much, Uncle Feruz? Did you catch cold?
Uncle Feruz: It is no colder than yesterday but I feel it more.
Turk: We are too tired today from all this hard digging.
Kairola: Hey, Suleiman! I heard you paid five hundred riyals, for a pilgrimage to Meshed.
Suleiman: We paid 220 riyals to go and 230 riyals to get back. (Alain leaves the site to put his sweater with the toolbox some distance away.)
Turk: The Frenchman took off his horse blanket. (Then, calling, in a polite tone) Do these trenches need to be dug out Monsieur?
Alain: (lighting cigarette) Oui.
Suleiman: These French people don’t like anyone to disturb them. Yesterday they told me to prevent anyone from coming near the site. But I don’t always follow their orders.
Alain”, (returning, to Suleiman) the dig begins to become interesting.
Suleiman: Yes, monsieur, it’s becoming interesting. (Alain leaps up to a higher level.)
Turk: He’s jumping too much today. Somebody has brought him some beer today.
Suleiman: Two diesel trucks cannot carry these long names the Frenchmen have.
Terabi: Look! A charred grain of wheat. There must have been a fire here. (Alain comes to examine.) All the famous battles and wars made in this place were only for this one measure of grain.
Turk: I’m hungry already. (A man with a camera appears on the cliff above them. Alain waves him away, calling, “Si vous plait! No photographs.”)
Turk: This Frenchman is like the Mulla Nasrudin; he is of bad temper today. Hey Terabi! You are like a wolf digging with his paws. (Alain and Gilvert stroll off again.)
Suleiman: These French seem ill tempered today. What did they take today? (Two Frenchwomen and two children, clad in bright pink snowsuits, approach the site. Suleiman stands out of respect.)
Suleiman: Salaam khanom. Good morning, ladies.
Turk: Why so polite? A Persian is a Persian to them. Do they understand our language?
Suleiman: No. (One of the Frenchwomen lights a cigarette and stands smoking it, watching the workmen. Alain and Gilvert return and exchange greetings with them. Gilvert stays to converse while Alain abruptly returns to the site and busies himself with some charts as if to indicate he is annoyed by the presence of visitors. The smallest of the two children stumbles and falls and starts to cry.)
Uncle Feruz: Is its foot paining?
Boy: (lifting a heavy box of artifacts) Yah Khoda. Oh, dear God.
Suleiman: If Allah will make the other world so good for these Frenchmen as they enjoy now, then they will have two paradises.
Turk: Yah. I got a four-year-old brother who has a big belly like a pumpkin. Let me bring him here to make a wrestling match with this French kid. My brother is living by eating crumbs but this kid is fattening on enchanted food and is so well fed. He or she is nourished so perfectly while my poor brother must scratch for crumbs to avoid starving.
Suleiman: Those having such a good living on earth may not have salvation in the other world.
Ali: It is not even eleven yet. How slow the time passes.
Turk: These children are so clean. Everyone has a servant in Zoroaster Castle.* This kid is about five years old yet he could not take a cup of tea without someone helping him whereas my poor four-year old brother has to pour even water for himself.
*As the, Citadel is locally known
Terabi: Oh dear, don’t go on so. Let me ask you, who is stronger, you or them? Let there me a wrestling match between you. I am sure you have the power to beat the French. But they work with their heads and that is a drain on the body.
Turk: We always are unshaven but these kharrjoha* shave every morning and get a hot shower every day and we don’t get to bathe sometimes for even a week.
Suleiman: Ah, but, Turk. We are Moslems and a Moslem is like a golden coin which will not rust even if it is buried in the earth for hundreds of years. These people would give off a bad stench if they were not being cleansed every day. (Turning to Alain and shifting from local dialect to standard Persian). Monsieur, Monsieur Alain, look at this piece of stone. It broke by itself. Don’t say afterward that I cracked it by mistake. We must take these stones out.
Alain: What are they?
Suleiman: Only soil; no wall is in evidence here. Look, Monsieur Alain, how all the tiles have fallen. They are all from a fallen wall which has been ruined by water. They were all sun-dried brick which fell at some time into water. Monsieur, from this point up we can find no mud bricks. We should dig the lower parts. This is all rubbish washed down by water. Perhaps a flood. (Alain nods.) Monsieur Alain, what time is it by your watch?
Alain – Ten minutes to twelve.
Suleiman – These tiles are belonging to the upper part. (The Frenchwomen and children go and Alain and Gilvert walk some distance away with them.) These French are of short temper today. Monsieur Alain does not like people to come to the site.
Terabi: Believe it. These French cannot afford to see someone sitting at their table.
Suleiman: Professor Ghirshman was so hot tempered he could see no one stepping into his site. He said people coming here might be harmful. He was absolutely a difficult man to handle. (Alain returns.) Here are two tiles, Monsieur Alain. Let this stay untouched until we dig the other side.
Terabi: Khan went to Mecca.
Uncle Feruz: He is due there today.
Suleiman: He will give us a good story of his trip when he returns.
Turk: Did he go a second time? He is a hadji already. Did he take his wife with him on this journey? He will be called Hadji Ahmad henceforth.
Suleiman: When he is back from Mecca I wish to have sufficient time to sit and hear his story about the journey.
Turk: Who is Ghirshman?
Suleiman: Ghirshman was a man who was wishing to excavate all of Shush within 24 hours. He was such a difficult man who was ever insisting to prove his words.+
Turk: What kind of a gigantic black man was that in the bazar last night?
Suleiman: Maybe from Kuwait or Saudi.
Terabi – Someone said there is a large quantity of snow in Arrak. Last night I wrote my family in a letter to inform me what the thickness of the snow was over there.
Suleiman: Hey, Turk, and Ali! Go slow with the cart. Otherwise you might break a leg.
Uncle Feruz: These young men, are all childish.
Terabi: Remember how Ebrahim’s foot was cut off because of his independent ways. He was too careless.
Alain: (looking over Suleiman s shoulder) It’s red soil but the upper strata is even more reddish.
Suleiman: Yes, yes.
+ R, Chirshman, the eminent French archeologist
Alain: One, two, three….four bricks there.
Uncle Feruz: When I was a boy Monsieur de Mecquenen gave me a ten riyal coin one time. He was fat and carried a parasol. There was a tunnel and I found a gold piece and he took it and put it in his watchcase and I ran home to tell my mother and father. In those days we got only one-and-a-half riyals a day. Now some of the workers get as much as 120 riyals. (A tall, gaunt beggar woman shrouded in a black abas appears and comes up to the site, holding out her hand.)
Uncle Feruz: Why come here? Go to the bazar. Here men are working.
Beggar woman: I have five children. No father. No room.
Uncle Feruz: You are too much lying. My king will give you room. You go around, saying, “Give me baksheesh,” people will think too many poor people in this country. My king not like that.
Woman: Haji, you give me baksheesh.
Boy: Go, go.
Suleiman: It’s not good, to come around here. You go and beg in the bazar. Many gentlemen there, (Gilvert walks off toward the Citadel. The woman follows him, holding out her hand and whining.)
Turk: (laughing) She wants to marry the Frenchman. (all laugh.)
Suleiman: Stop laughing. Monsieur Alain will get angry. I’m digging in the ground. That beggar woman comes, I say, “No, I have no money.” If you give money they’ll come back every day.
Ali: Why should she come here? She can work. She looked very strong.
Suleiman: It is not for bread, for food, this money she wants. Maybe her husband smokes opium. Not only because she is hungry. Maybe her husband is an opium smoker. And she is too.
Ali: Food and bread are very cheap. If she finds some riyals maybe she wants to buy opium.
Suleiman: These Shush people. They get up and go to work early. Four o’clock. I’ve got a room with some workers at the sugar plantation. Some of these Shush people have a good life. If have a shop can open early and close early.
Ali: Yah, the Shush man has a good life. (
Alain gets out a measuring tape and starts to mark the earth.)
Terabi: Was this room a bath room or a sitting room?
Suleiman: Monsieur, look at this. (He has uncovered an alabaster opium box.)
Turk: How do I know if it was a bathroom or a sitting room? My job is to fill the boxes with things we find. We carry them to the castle. The Frenchmen wash and want to see.
Uncle Feruz: For thirty years of rain I’ve seen that earth and it never came down. (He is looking at le temoin.) Thirty years of rain, an earthquake six years ago and a flood two years ago and it never came down.
Alain: (to Turk and Ali) Ca suffit. Don’t overload the wagon, (They push it along some miniature-railroad tracks to a cliff and dump the earth out.)
Turk: The cart holds 500 kilos.
Boy: No, a thousand kilos.
Ali: No, 400.
Suleiman: Maybe 600 kilos.
Terabi: What time now?
Kairola: His watch goes two minutes fast.
Suleiman: No, your watch goes two minutes slow.
Turk: Who’s worked here the longest?
Suleiman: Kairola was here before my time. Before Professor Ghirshman’s time. I worked every year but one with Professor Ghirshman. I only missed one year.
Terabi: I’m sick. I’ve got some dust in my eye.
Alain: When you finish this afternoon you can go to the doctor.
Terabi: It’s too late. The doctor is closed. When I asked before the monsieur in charge let me go to the doctor for one hour.
Alain: All right. You can go to the doctor at three o’clock. Quit work one hour early.
(For some time all work in silence. Then Turk, seeing Alain’s back is turned, picks up a Pebble and throws it at Boy, who retaliates with a handful of dirt. Turk throws another stone and Boy throws more dirt back and then Turk chases Boy behind the cart of dirt. Ali and Turk start to push the cart to the dumping ground but start to run when Boy tries to throw on another basketful of earth and the cart plunges downhill, almost jumping the tracks and going over the cliff.)
Alain: Yewash! Slowly!
Uncle Feruz: Monsieur, I think this is a hoof or horn. (Alain examines what Feruz hands him.)
Don’t go with others
Don’t go with others
You pay no attention to me
In this strange town
(Turk shouts something unintelligible to Ali.)
Ali: Turk, this is the second time today you are abusing me. Watch your tongue.
Turk: I can’t understand you as you speak in your village dialect, Safar, Ali. You say khayah for “egg” whereas we use khayah for testicles. When you say khayah I become angry.
Ali: If you tell me, “Come and drink water from this doul I will be angry too. Because in my village we use doul for penis.
Suleiman: Monsieur, I found this stone.
Alain: Give it to me.
Ali: Hey, boy, did you kill any kaffar last night or not? Hi! What?*
Turk: Hi, did you kill any last night yourself? (Both laugh)
Ali: Hi, Turk don’t you want me to take you to Shush?
Turk: I know Shush better than you do.
Ali: No, you don’t know what places to go where you can have a good time.
Turk: We came here from Arrak just to get out of the cold weather and earn some money here.
Ali: I will kill three kaffars a night if I reach my wife in Arrak. The main problem in winter is this: that you should have a good bath at your house if you would like to get in touch with your wife just to kill a kaffar. [“to kill a kaffar,” literally means to kill someone not included among the “people of the book,” that is Moslems, Jews and Christians; here it is used as a slang phrase meaning sexual intercourse.]
Turk: (laughing and starting to sing again:)
I didn’t do anything bad to you, my darling.
My only evil deed was to forget you.
Turk: Oh, you son of a bitch, Ali.
Alain (suddenly exploding with surprising vehemence) Shaket! Be Quiet! (For a moment all are frozen. The Turk’s face darkens and he clenches his fists but says nothing. Alain glances nervously at Gilvert and smiles with embarrassment for having lost his temper. The men, all with their faces turned to the ground, seem absorbed in their work, if humiliated.)
Suleiman: (finally breaking the silence) It is twenty minutes after twelve, Monsieur Alain.
Alain: (With some relief) Tatil, tatil! [literally “holiday,” but here means “quitting time.”]
Uncle Feruz: (much louder) Tatil, tatil!
Terabi: Ya khoda. Oh dear generous Allah.
Suleiman: Turk, you stay here today. I’ll send Ali back with tea and kabob.
(Turk does not reply but stands exactly as he did when Alain shouted at him. Alain and Gilvert gather up their sweaters and notebooks and begin to climb the pathway toward the Citadel, chatting with animation. Suleiman end the rest of the crew gather up their picks, shovels and baskets, stack them up neatly by the toolbox and follow the Frenchmen. All of the laborers seemed subdued; even their shoulders seem to sag a little as if all of them, not just Turk, had been reprimanded and humiliated.
Turk waits, until he is alone, then goes to the center of the dig and climbs up to a high ledge of earth on le temoin, crumbling with his heavy boot heels as he goes one of the carefully peeled away edges Alain has been preparing to determine the stratagraphic position of the major finds of the twentieth century. Standing on the high ledge, Turk falls prostrate, then rises to his knees, then stands, during the noontime Islamic prayers toward Mecca. In such a setting, however, he appears less an ordinary Moslem than a prehistoric man, astride this great jutting slab of earth, performing some primordial rite. His prayers completed, Turk turns in the direction of the Citadel.)
Turk: (muttering but with savage anger) I….am….not….dirt.
640 B. C. To The Present
By divine decree destiny was potent of old, and enjoined on Persians to engage in wars, and cavalry routs, and the overthrow of cities.
I am Darius, the Great King, the King of Kings, the King of all lands, the King of all the earth, the son of Hystaspes, the Achaemenian.
Inscription on a foundation stone of the palace of Darius at Susa I discovered on February 17 and 18, 1970
[Just as Mark Twain observed when first visiting the Holy Sepulcre in Jerusalem that it seemed Jesus had been crucified by Catholic priests and nuns, so one gets the impression from the new little museum at Shush that Darius was a Frenchman; I envisaged him looking rather like Jean Marais as the prince in “La Belle et le Bete.” One is confronted with a large sign presenting the inscription in French: “Je suis Darius, le grand roi, le roi des rois, le roi des pays, le roi sur cette terre, le fils de Hystaspe, l’Achemenide.” For those interested the ancient Babylonian text read: “A-na-ku M da-ri-ia-mush sharru rabu ‘ (u) shar sharranu shar matatti shar gag-ga-ri mar M ush-ta-as-pi a-ha-ma-ni-ish-shi,” and the ancient Elamite: ” u da-ri-ia-mas-u-ish sunki ir-shair-ra sunki M sunki M sunki-ip-ir-ra sunki sunki da-au-ish-pe-na sunki mu-ru-un-hi uk-ku-ra-ir-ra mi-ish-da-ash-ba sha-akuri M na-ak-ka-man-ru-shi.”]
Ironically, in 640 B.C., the year Assurbanipal vanquished Elam and retired to Babylonia to amass a library that today is the greatest archeological treasure in the British Museum, a new king, Cyrus I, was crowned in the obscure Persian principality that had sprung up in the Bakhtiari foothills west of Susa fifty years before. But so entirely had the grandeur of Susa been forgotten, that when his grandson, Cyrus II, known as Cyrus the Great in history, decided to place his new capital at Susa, Strabo, the Greek historian reported that he did so not only because of the situation of the city on the Elamite plain but also because “it had never of itself undertaken any great enterprise and had always been in subjection to other people.” Sic transit gloria mundi.
Cyrus is, of course, one of the towering figures in human history. Within a single lifetime he toppled the Medes, the semi-overlords of the Iran plateau, and swept over the entire Fertile Crescent to create the first world empire and, incidentally, freeing the Hebrews from the Babylonian yoke.
As put forward in the Book of Ezra: “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? His God be with him and let him go up to Jerusalem….”
Cyrus, who ruled from 559 to 530 B.C., also figures prominently in the Book of Daniel, as do his successors, Darius the Great and Ataxerxes. In the year 612 B.C., just 28 years after the fall of Elam, the Assyrian capital of Nineveh had fallen to Babylon and the great Assyrian empire quickly faded into history. Around the year 600 B.C., King Nebuchadnezzar had rebuilt Babylon, creating the famous Hanging Gardens of Semiramis, gigantic palaces, the wide Street of Processions and the great Euphrates Bridge so that the city’s grandeur was unsurpassed in the Fertile Crescent.
In mid-539 B.C. Daniel was a palace page grown to chamberlain in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. When he alone of the royal seers was able to explain a dream of the king, Nebuchadnezzar set him “over all the wise men of Babylon.” In one of his visions, Daniel imagines himself to be in “Susa, the capital, in the province of Elam;” where he was later to serve in the court of Darius the Great and eventually be buried. When Prince Belshazzar, ruling as regent, feasted with vessels from Solomon’s temple, only Daniel could read the words written on the palace wall by a disembodied hand. Daniel told the prince, “Thy kingdom is…given to the Medes and the Persians.” The next morning Belshazzar lay dead; Cyrus the Great ruled Babylon. Daniel still held office but jealous rivals plotted his downfall when they found him flaunting a royal edict by praying to his God; they forced the king to invoke “the law of the Medes and the Persians, which altereth not.” “And they brought Daniel,” the Old Testament tells us, “and cast him into the den of lions.’ The next morning found him unhurt. “My God…hath shut the lions’ mouths,” cried Daniel and his accusers died in the den instead.
The episode over the lions’ den appears to have taken place after the accession of Darius to the Persian throne in 522 B.C. For we are told that Darius was so impressed he “wrote to all the peoples, nations, and languages that dwelt on earth: ‘Peace be multiplied to you. I make a decree, that in all my royal dominion men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God, enduring for ever, his kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion shall be to the end. He delivers and rescues, in works signs and wonders, in heaven and on earth, he who has saved Daniel from the power of the lions.” And the Bible says, “So this Daniel prospered during the reign of Darius and the reign of Cyrus the Persian.”
This should not suggest that Cyrus and Darius were converted to Judaism; but like the Hebrews the two great Persian kings were monotheistic, worshipping Ahura Mazda, the god of the Zoroastrian religion which had emerged in Persia about a century before their reigns. By now the cultural life of the Middle East had polarized between sacred and secular, temple and palace, priest and courtier and the religions of Zoroaster and the Hebrew prophets were to survive long after the palaces of Nineveh, Babylon and Susa lay in ruins. Zoroastrianism expressly forbade the bloody sacrifices and ritual orgies of the earlier fertility cults. In doctrine it had some similarities with Judaism: the expectation of a fiery day of judgment, when evil would be banished and God’s power be manifested on earth; the belief in immortality combining reward for the righteous and punishment for the wicked; and in such details as the belief in angels. Like Judaism, Zoroastrianism was an attempt to adjust ancestral religious beliefs, formed in nomadry and desert life, to an agricultural and civilized pattern of existence. But in their national careers the Persians and the Hebrews could not have been more different; one had gained the world, the other had lost the Promised Land. So far it has been established that only Darius and his son and heir Xerxes, (the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther) used definitely Zoroastrian language in their inscriptions. By the reign of King Ataxerxes” (404-359 B.C.) there had been a definite backsliding to the setting up of fertility cult statues in temples, a practice which would have been repugnant to either Cyrus or Darius.
Cyrus divided his realm into twenty administrative regions, each ruled by a satrap, or governor. After his death in 529 B.C., his son and successor, Cambyses, took the obvious step of stretching the empire into Egypt and captured Memphis. Trying to win acceptance as Pharaoh, Cambyses visited the Nile temples and wore Egyptian royal robes but his expeditions up the Nile toward Ethiopia failed.
Darius took the throne in 522 B.C. To consolidate his empire he built a canal between the Nile and the Red Sea noting, “After this canal had been dug as I commanded, ships went from Egypt through the canal to Persia, according to my wish.”
A year after he assumed power, Darius, who had lived as a simple soldier under Cyrus and as the commander of Cambyses’ royal bodyguard, the famed “Ten Thousand Immortals,” in Egypt, sumptuously rebuilt Susa, completing a vast new palace in seven years. It was constructed of cedars from Lebanon, carried by Assyrians down the Euphrates to Babylon where Carians and Ionians took them to Susa. Another precious wood, ebonite, was brought from Gandara and Kurmana; gold from Sardis and Bactria but worked in Susa; silver from Egypt and ivory from the Hindu Kush and India and stone for the throne room’s 72 22-meter high columns from the Iranian plateau but carved by Ionians and Sardinians at Susa. Ivory work was done by Medes and Egyptians and the brickwork by Babylonians. In the palace charter Darius says it is by the favor of Ahura Mazda that so many beautiful things came to Susa and he asks the protection of the divinity for himself and his empire.
As soon as Susa was built Darius constructed an identical series of palaces at Persepolis, far to the east where he wanted a ceremonial capital that would be “secure and beautiful.” The splendor of life at the court in Susa is best described in the book of Esther, the beautiful Jewess who married Darius’ son, Xerxes. (“The King loved Esther above all women….So that he set the royal crown upon her head.”) As is familiar, Esther and her kinsmen foiled a plot to kill the king, then thwarted a pogram against the Hebrews in Susa. Jews today still hail Esther in the Festival of Purim. Xerxes, her husband, is chiefly noted in history for sacking Athens and galvanizing the Greek city states into the great cultural flowering known as the Golden Age of Pericles.
Curiously, there was no apparent extensive program of agricultural development on the Khuzestan Plain (during this period, the province of Elam) when the Achaemenian dynasty ruled much of the civilized world from Susa. (As mentioned earlier, no agricultural settlements definitely dating from this period have been found. On the right bank of the Karun river below the town of Shustar, there are a small group of village ruins which were linked by a new canal dug either by Darius or a successor, but this is some distance from Susa.) Yet it is known that the court of Darius numbered well over fifteen thousand people, two-thirds of whom were soldiers, part of imperial army of 120,000 men. Darius introduced coinage to the empire which was the only gold currency of the ancient world and taxes in kind were also heavy, Babylon feeding the court and a third of the army and Egypt providing corn for around l50,000 persons annually. The Medes furnished the court horses, mules and sheep, the Armenians foals and the Babylonians eunuchs, some of whom became royal chamberlains and were a powerful influence in the palace. The Greek historian, Herodotus, provides a great many details about Darius’ military campaigns, but of the basic agriculture around the capital city we remain largely ignorant.
The introduction of coinage did allow for the development of banks which we know held leases, dug canals and sold water to peasants. And there was a high land tax that discouraged individual farming. As developed late in the Elamite kingdoms of the earlier age, estates and temples, with large retinues of serfs and slaves, continued to be the heart of agricultural and economic life. These large estates could be bought and sold and their serfs, mostly captured slaves, were part of the sale. Only in the highland province of Fars, the original home of the Persians, did many owner-farmers seem to till their own land. Wheat, barley, oats, grapes and olives were common crops and cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, mules and horses raised. Bee-keeping was becoming widespread as a source for sugar.
Especially on the Iranian plateau life had become much as it was in Medieval Europe with prince, nobles, free men, owning or not owning land and slaves. Already there were signs of slaves and peasantry and the non-propertied classes beginning to struggle against the nobility.
The camel, first domesticated in 1,000 B.C., now came into common usage and was even used by Darius for his cavalry. But the diet of the common man was now poorer than it had been in the early days of Elam and consisted of little more than bread, fish, a little oil and wine.
Also, during this period we see the growth of a hybrid economy, with agriculture starting to experience a splitting up into smaller and smaller subsistence units while the kings and rulers were primarily interested in the great traditional centers and trading entrepots. Toward the end of the Achaemenian period, around 350 B.C., we find the first evidence that the plow has been introduced in China.
One last note on the Achaemenians. It is interesting to note how many of the Hebrew prophets either lived in Susa or refer to the reigns of the successive Persian rulers of the time. These include, besides Daniel, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the second Isaiah and Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai and Zechariah. On the eve of Alexander the Great’s march into Asia in 334 B.C., the Old Testament ends, with its future promise, perhaps best put in Isaiah 52: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace….”
The second Isaiah lived and wrote during the lifetime of Cyrus the Great and it was at the tomb of Cyrus at Pasargadae, that the young Macedonian, Alexander, would read: “O man, whosoever thou art and whencesoever thou comest, for I know that thou wilt come, I am Cyrus, son of Cambyses, and I won for the Persians their empire. Do not, therefore, begrudge me this little earth that covers my body.” (The source for this scene was Plutarch.)
The court of Susa had been implicated in the assassination of King Philip, Alexander’s father, but after crossing the Dardanelles and capturing the mother, wife and children of Darius III, the last of the Achaemenian rulers, and defeating him at Gaugamela in the foothills of the Assyrian mountains in 331 B.C., Alexander treated the family well and restored them to their palace at Susa. Why he should later burn and sack Persepolis, which was in effect already his possession, remains a mystery and many historians simply believe Alexander was drunk at the time.
At any rate, Susa’s last great blaze of glory came in 325 B.C. when Alexander returned to the City from India for his triumphal celebration. During five days of festivities, Alexander married Statira, the daughter of Darius III (who was murdered by his men while fleeing the Macedonian forces), and ten thousand Greek soldiers took Persian brides in what Alexander hoped would be a fusion of peoples. Alexander rested in Susa almost two years, embarking in 323 B.C. on a campaign against Carthage. But he got no farther than Babylon, and, after his entire army passed by his deathbed, expired at the age of 32. (Statira was murdered soon after by Roxana, Alexander’s Greek wife, during the bloody succession struggle that followed.)
From then until the rule of the Parthians began in 140 B.C. Susa and the Elamite plain were ruled by Alexander’s Seleucid heirs. The people of Susa adopted Greek culture, spoke the Greek language and there was a general renaissance of settled urban life in what had been ancient Elam. Under the Parthians, a Greek garrison remained at Susa, and some impressive irrigation works were undertaken which can still be seen in aerial photos today. A considerable program of canal building was underway, the population grew but, with the center of culture and power now shifting to the Iranian plateau, little of major historical importance occurred.
Then, during the rule of the Sassanides (226-637 A.D.) a massive transformation of the Mesopotamian plain east of the Tigris or what is modern Khuzestan was undertaken to extend irrigation over all arable land. Much of the engineering is believed to have been done by Romans – some of the 70,000 Roman legionnaires captured in 260 A.D. with the aged Emperor Valerian by King Shapur at Edessa.
Most of these captured Romans are believed to have eventually settled down near Susa, forming the still-existing town of Dezful, whose inhabitants even today look more Italian than Persian. Valerian himself, according to legend, was forced in his hapless old age to serve as a mounting block for his conqueror and that his body was flayed after death and the skin kept on as a trophy. Certainly, the capture of a Roman Caesar in his royal purple produced a great moral effect on the young Sassanian dynasty.
Even today, the great irrigation system the Sassanians built on the Khuzestan plain has never been surpassed and must have required a great deal of planning and administration, many technical innovations and a massive investment of state funds.
Unlike most modern agriculture development programs, however, it aimed at increasing food production by extending the area of cultivation rather than by introducing more intensive farming and increasing labor productivity. In this way it can be compared with the efforts of India and Pakistan to expand their areas of cultivation after independence in 1947.
Great weirs of stone and brick were constructed across the Karkheh River at Pa-i-Pol, the Dez River at Dezful and the Karun River at Shushtar and the present city of Ahwaz, which radiated canal networks to provide more reliable winter irrigation to the whole of Khuzestan.
There was no storage system; a weir, or what we call a diversion dam, diverting low flows but allowing flood waters to pass over it. The major construction work took place during the reign of Chosroes I (531-579 A.D.) There was an extensive use of tunnels with periodic vent holes – usually a shaft going down every 25 meters – not only as subsurface conduits through ridges but also as collection for ground water. Essentially these were of two types: (1) tunnels to tap ground water extending horizontally down sloped ground until daylight was reached, and (2) tunnels which ran from deep river beds straight across until a slope reached daylight. The longest was fifteen kilometers. While dozens of such tunnels were built, most of them have caved in or been destroyed although five still remain in use today! (as well as hundreds elsewhere.)[ Reference here is made only to Khuzestan] Another innovation was the construction of an inverted siphon to carry a large canal across a seasonal water course. Such siphons were introduced in the United States only five years ago.
As part of this agricultural development program, the Sassanians put great stress on commercial crops and handicraft industries, including the manufacture of fine silks, satins, brocades, cotton and woolen textiles. In some areas, new populations were added through the settlement of prisoners. Cities grew up and Susa, which had risen and fallen so many times, was once more extensively reconstructed. The total population of Khuzestan (Elam and the southern reaches of the plain) reached an all-time high, perhaps four to five million people. At its zenith greater Mesopotamia in ancient times was believed to have reached more than 12 million people as compared to modern Iraq’s population of around 7 million.) For the first time in history, agricultural settlements began to thrive well south of Ahwaz on land that formerly had been below sea level and was covered by the Persian Gulf. A university was founded at Jundi Shapur by King Shapur II which became a famed center for astrological, theological and medical learning. A hospital was built, as well as a great pharmacopoeia and the growth of a market economy had spurred trade with all the great entrepots of the Middle East.
It should be remembered that all this happened nearly a thousand years before the first, medieval, revolution of agriculture in Europe. And then in 570 A.D., Mohammed, whom I have previously called the last of the desert prophets of the Hebrew, Christian and Islamic religions was born. This, I believe, represented a significant setback for technological development in the Middle East, especially in agriculture, because Islam represented a return to the stern and just God of war and the desert, a return to the old religion of Abraham before it had been adapted to meet the needs of agricultural and civilized, indeed, Hellenized, societies.
It seems quite clear from any careful reading of the Koran that Mohammed regarded himself as only the latest in the long line of prophets that began in 750 B.C. with Amos, continued for six hundred years to the author of the Book of Daniel (ca. 150 B.C.) and beyond to the teachings of Jesus of Nasareth (ca. 30-34 A.D.) The themes of his early preaching were simple; he proclaimed the existence of one God, Allah, the terror of Allah’s impending Day of Judgment, and the duty of each human being to obey the will of Allah as revealed by his latest prophet, Mohammed. Allah was conceived as the same deity who had earlier revealed himself through Jesus and the Hebrew prophets. In his early years, Mohammed appears to have assumed that the adherents of Judaism and Christianity would recognize him as God’s last, latest, and hence most authentic messenger. The Koran, after all, is mostly peopled with figures out of the Old and New Testaments. Only when he removed with his followers to Medina (622 A.D.) and came into close contact and conflict with the Jewish tribes already settled in that oasis did he recognize the futility of his assumption. Thereafter, he declared that Jews and Christians had so corrupted and forgotten the Divine revelation as to reject undiluted truth. He declared himself spokesman of the authentic “religion of Abraham.”
The preaching’s of Mohammed in the past twelve hundred years seem to have had two main effects on the Middle East, the birthplace of the religions of both Abraham and Jesus. One is that nowhere else in the world has agriculture remained so backward and technologically retarded and the second is that nowhere else in the world does any religion have such a strong and profound effect on the daily lives of its adherents. In a secular, spiritually rootless age, Moslems seem about the only “true believers”[Figures from George M. Adams, see earlier reference] left in large numbers. Indeed, where much material progress has been made in the Middle East, the modernizers have been men who have had to virtually compartmentalize their minds to keep their religious beliefs and their secular concerns entirely apart.
Also, logically, a Christian or Jew cannot peacefully coexist with a Moslem, as easily as -they can, theologically speaking, with each other. For them either Mohammed was an imposter or the latest and hence the most valid prophet through which God has revealed his divine will. This contradiction and the accompanying tensions that go with it, has yet to be resolved.
In 639 A.D. the Arab armies, bearing the banner of Islam before them, came to Khuzestan to conquer and convert. At first, the effect was relatively mild. By this time, Khuzestan’s tax payments included twenty tons of refined sugar and most of the sugar traded at the eastern Caliphate in Baghdad. At a normal market price of about $3.30 per kilogram – enough to keep a couple in modest circumstances for a month at contemporary prices – Khuzestan was flourishing. Rice, observed growing in Khuzestan by Alexander’s time, only now became an important item in the diet.
Indeed, in the early days of the Arab rule, Susa experienced a cultural renaissance, especially in lustrous polychrome ceramics and a great variety of vases and dishware. The tomb of Daniel, whom Ali, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law, called the “greatest of the prophets” became an important place of pilgrimage for Moslems of the Shi’a sect, (who, unlike Sunni Moslems, support Ali’s claim to the Caliphate in Baghdad.)
Agriculture, however, began to decline with the arrival of Islam. In late Sassanian times, tax receipts from Khuzestan had been over $5 million, around 12 times more than the tribute exacted from the same area by the Achaemenian kings a thousand years earlier. [As compared with the nominal religiosity but actual secularism of the Punjabis and Javanese.]
By 900 A.D. they had fallen below $2 million, which indicates that a gradual but steep decline had set in well before the onset of Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes and the massacre of millions of Persians and destruction of the Persian cities plunged Iran into a setback it is only now recovering from. By 1,300 A.D. tax receipts had fallen to less than the equivalent of $300,000 or considerably below what they had been in the sparsely populated days of Cyrus the Great.
Various reasons have been cited for the decline of agriculture under Arab rule. Aside from my own thesis of the incompatibility of technological progress and orthodox Islam, farming in Elam was heavily taxed, the Abbaside Caliphate after 900 A.D. grew increasingly corrupt and inefficient, the citizen soldiers of the Hellenistic period were replaced by mercenary bands who looted the peasants, the instability that accompanied the breakup of the Caliphate created unrest in the countryside and finally, the death blow dealt by the barbarian Mongols.
Another contributing factor might have been the increasing reliance during the eighth and ninth centuries on slave labor, which culminated in the Great Slave Rebellion in lower Khuzestan and the lower Tigris Valley from 864 to 883 A.D. In this wet country of swamps and marshland, hundreds of thousands of slaves were employed in the attempted physical removal of the saline surface crust. The slaves mostly known as Zanj (after the East African slave city of Zanzibar), fought for fourteen years during which many of the Khuzestan towns were damaged. (One still sees an occasional black descendant of these slaves in the streets of Shush.)
In the 12th century there were still references to Susa as a thriving mercantile and textile center and in 1170 A.D. a visiting rabbi reported 7,000 Jews numbered among the inhabitants. After Baghdad was sacked by the Mongols in 1258 A.D. little more is known, although there is a record of Susa. Having been precipitately and temporarily abandoned in a local military action. Local tradition holds that Tamerlane finally destroyed Susa in the 14th century and although a local village bears his name the French archeologists maintain that Tamerlane never came that far (it is known he reached nearby Dezful, where he built a still-standing mosque.)
What is known is that Susa, having endured as a great world city longer than any other in the history of man, had vanished entirely when British and French explorers ventured into Khuzestan in the l9th century and that Ahwaz, today a city and the provincial capital, was then only a small village. By then the only other surviving villages were near the small towns of Shustar and Dezful, just below the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, although it is possible these had indeed preserved some agricultural continuity from the earliest Neolithic times. (In a similar example of depopulation, the number of people in Mexico fell from 11 million at the time of the Spaniards’ arrival in 1519 to 2.5 million by 1600 and to 1.5 million by 1650 A.D.)
(A somewhat similar agricultural decline occurred in 18th century China. Peasant distress arose because (1) excessive population growth caused too much subdivision of the land until in bad seasons the tiny farms could no longer sustain a family and (2) amidst the helpless peasant indebtedness and sporadic foreclosures that followed both opium smoking and peasant rebellions became widespread.)
One can probably put 1000 A.D. as the date when agriculture, the basis of civilization until the industrial age and to some degree afterward, was conspicuously in decline in the Middle East and rapidly beginning to ascend in Europe. For by 1000 A.D. heavy mold-board plows were generally in use in Europe. This technological breakthrough made possible and necessary the new manorial system of farming in Europe which in turn created the agricultural surpluses on which the military advance of Northwest Europe depended.
Between 1000 and 1500 A.D. European farming went commercial. This, of course, reflected the expansion of the commercial economy of the medieval towns and cities (and the Protestant Reformation, which, though intended to achieve a sanctification of all human activities before God – not only crop-raising and sheep-herding – led to an application to the business of making money such as the world had never before witnessed.)
In the most active centers, calculations of price and profit began to introduce modifications in crop rotation and methods of cultivation and in the balance between animal husbandry (mostly sheep raising) and crop production. The treatment as commercially negotiable commodities even began to extend to lands and rents. In result, for the first time in history, an absolute majority of the peasantry ceased to find their lives circumscribed by traditional agricultural tasks and traditional ways of thinking and values. Instead they faced the troubling ups and downs of a market economy in which a few grew rich, some prospered, while many became paupers, so many indeed, that by the 18th and 19th centuries, some forty million would migrate to the United States in human history’s greatest mass movement of peoples.
The cost, in uncertainty about the future, in the substitution of monetary for human values, in removing life of much of its poetry, was very great, especially for the poor. (This is the process now taking place in Asia’s agricultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s). But the growing market economy of Europe, supported by cheap water carriage of bulk commodities, was a potent lever for raising up European power and wealth far above that attained elsewhere. In the 14th and 15th centuries Russia too began to undergo its agricultural revolution. First under Mongol (or Tartar) overlords and then under Russian princes a vast work was carried out of cutting down forests and taming the land for agriculture so that the Russian population ceased to be concentrated principally along the river banks, as in Kievan times, with the hinterlands left largely to hunters and fur trappers. A numerous agricultural population developed, which, under a unified and centralized state, formed the basis for the emergence of modern Russia. This story, though less familiar than that of the settlement of the United States, centered around the problems of labor shortages encountered on any expanding frontier. These could be solved in either of two ways with the Russians favoring the first and the Americans the second;(1) drastic compulsion to sustain social stratification or (2) drastic liberty with concommitant regression toward an equalitarian neo-barbarism (as in the old Wild West, where man came close at times to reliving his lost Neolithic, anarchic Paradise.) [As he does in contemporary, urbanized America watching television ‘Westerns; the old atavistic, hunting instincts are still strong.]
During the 19th century, man undertook an unparalleled amount of tinkering and manipulating with the forces of nature, as he had first started to do by introducing the traction plow and the irrigation ditch in Elam at the beginning of our story. In agriculture, Britain took the lead in developing new technology such as the systematic-selection of seeds, careful breeding of animals for special traits and the introduction or spread of new crops like clover, turnips, potatoes, maize, cotton and tobacco, which worked tremendous new increases of productivity on the farms. Tests were undertaken to learn the best shapes for plowshares, the benefits of repeated tillage, elimination of weeds, drainage and application of manures and chemical fertilizers. This British breakthrough seems to have been caused by the English landowners being in a position to impose new methods on farm laborers, since in most parts of Europe peasants stuck to old methods and only slowly adopted the new agricultural methods.
Charles Darwin (d. 1882), of course, had an enormous influence on agricultural research with his famous book, On the Origin of species, which brought all living things within the scope of a single evolutionary process. (Part of Darwin’s data, on his voyage with the Beagle, was collected on the island of Mauritius. See RC 1 & 2). Geologists and paleontologists soon added to Darwin’s picture of human life and history dwarfed by the immensity of geological and biological time. [Not to slight Gregor Mendel (d. i884), who, although he wrote his great paper in his Austrian monastery in 1865, was not confirmed by de Vries, Correno and Tshcernak in three -separate researches until 1900.] Most important, Darwin, by reducing human beings to the level of other animals, subject to the same laws of natural selection and struggle for survival, shook the very foundations of the religious and social order as well as the refinement of all human culture. There were those who seized on Darwin’s theory to justify a ruthless economic individualism at home and an equally ruthless imperialism abroad. It was not long before Sigmund Freud (d. 1939) concluded the ruling drives of mankind resided in an unconscious level of the mind or Karl Marx (d. 1883) produced his vision of the stages of the human past and future – from slavery to serfdom to the financial exploitation of the free market onto the perfect freedom of socialist and communist society. And only in the past decade have we seen the application of all three men’s ideas, plus those of Lenin, to the frightening mass manipulation of a society through exploitations of internal contradictions as has been done with such signal success in his struggle against South Vietnam and the United States by Hanoi’s Le Duan, b. 1907). [Who is but one of many now developing revolutionary ideologies.]
But one of the great contributions by Darwin was to the science of plant genetics. The technological lead in agriculture held by the English shifted to the United States in about 1890. During the period that began just before the Civil War, or about 1860, to around 1910, the United States experienced the accumulation of a great deal of basic agricultural research, mostly due to the creation of land grant universities and colleges, the establishment of the agricultural extension services and the passage of the Hatch Act. [Key legislation was Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 end the Hatch Experimental Station Act of 1887; today USDA employs 108,500 employees] Then from about 1910 to 1940, the eve of World War II, there followed a tremendous increased in total American farm production, much of it due to the farming of new, virgin lands, especially on the Great Plains of the Middle West. The third phase of American agricultural development took place starting around 1935 but did not really pick up speed until the start of the war in 1941; this was a tremendous increase in production per acre through new seeds, irrigation, more efficient usage of tillage tools and the massive application of fertilizer, as well as mechanization. This resulted in what can be called the American Agricultural Revolution of the 1940s which left Congress and the White House with headaches unsolved to this day.
Developing simultaneously with the changes in America was the quiet, patient research by Dr. Ernest Borlaug and others with the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico of the dwarf wheat – and later in the Philippines – rice, that is now transforming – since 1964 – agriculture in much of the rest of the world. This phenomenon has been discussed in some depth in earlier reports.
Perhaps the most scientific agriculture – since most easily man controlled – has been that developed in the formerly semi-arid deserts which are now irrigated farms in the Imperial Valley and San Joaquin Valley in California and a few other irrigated areas in that state and Arizona. Here deserts have literally been made to bloom with the construction of such works as the 500-mile-long California Aqueduct (which was seen by the astronauts from the moon in 1969). Once the success of such mammoth reclamation projects in the American southwest was dramatized, the obvious question was: Could the same be done for the Middle East? Can the Fertile Crescent be reclaimed?
The question was – and is – an urgent one and during the past few years Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, Egypt and Israel have been either digging canal’s or been planning them. Israel, where most of the preliminary canal work was done in the early 1960s, and Egypt which has dug more than 400 miles already aside from the huge Aswan Dam project whose completion was dedicated last month, have taken the lead.
The problems facing the nation-states of the Middle East today are, in a political sense, not so unlike those faced by the neighbors of Sumer or Assyria or Persia during each one’s period of ascendancy. Sumer was predominant because of its literacy and early civilization, the Assyrians because they developed the wheeled-chariot and use of a horse cavalry, Persia, partly because of the camels introduced into his cavalry by Cyrus and his very wise politics. For the past fifty years in all of the modern Middle East countries, history has been rather like a race between the growing powers – Russia and America, now that Europe has faded, however temporarily, and the increasingly desperate efforts of the small Middle Eastern nations to stave them off by appropriating the West’s technology in the hope of thereby finding means to preserve their local autonomy. At present the greatest threat to national survival in this part of the world is the new element of Soviet expansion into the Indian Ocean. In the 16th century, tiny Portugal was able to control the trade in the Indian Ocean by holding Goa on India’s coast, Malacca and Diu. A century later the Dutch were able to do the same thing – that is, dominate trade in the world’s most strategic waters by holding Java, capturing Malacca and seizing some bases on Ceylon. There is little reason to question the Soviet Union’s ability, in light of its vast naval buildup of recent years, to repeat the experience of the Portuguese and Dutch, now that the British have effectively withdrawn East of Suez. Then there is, of course, the population explosion, caused by a cataclysmic fall in the death rate of most countries with the introduction of modern medicine and sanitation fifty years ago and sharply intensified by the post-war use of DDT to eradicate malaria.
In Iran alone the death rate has dropped from around 30 or 40 to 15 per thousand while the birth rate has remained at 50 per thousand. This means Iran’s present population growth rate of 3 per cent will soon reach 3.5 per cent. The conclusion of most experts is that Iran’s population will reach 50 million (it is 30 million now) by 1980 and that it could even double, Elsewhere in the country a water shortage could be a drag on rising living standards, even if Khuzestan is transformed. Much of this was forecast in the population and resources projections made in the 1950s. At that time, Mohammad Resa Shah Pahlavi, the present Shah of Iran, or, if you will, the king of Persia, was still a young man in his late thirties who began to think of Khuzestan, the deserted plain of ancient Elam, as “our national salvation.” At about this time Iranians themselves had begun to talk of a new renaissance headed, as all the previous ones had been, by a fresh dynasty. Iranians referred to the king, as they now do, as His Imperial Majesty, King of Kings, Light of the Aryans. If this sounded self-conscious; it was meant to be. There were hopes that given the king’s longevity and a period of stability, there might indeed be another Persia. At a World Bank meeting at Istanbul in 1955, some of the Shah’s planners invited David E. Lilienthal, former chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority to tour Khuzestan. During the tour, in 1956, Lilienthal was persuaded that his New York based consulting firm, Development Resources Corporation, should produce a blueprint for Khuzestan.
By 1959, Lilienthal’s staff produced a plan for the unified development of the natural resources of the Khuzestan region.” It was a multi-billion-dollar undertaking that would take many years to complete, it called for fourteen dams in Khuzestan, 66,000 megawatts of power production and hundreds of miles of canals to irrigate some 2,500,000 acres.
The Shah ordered work begun at once. While the first project – dam, powerhouse and canal – was being constructed on the Dez River, Lilienthal’s experts sought a quick showpiece that would convince prospective investors that large scale farming could pay off in the province. (The basic difference between what is called he Dez River and the Sassanian irrigation scheme for Elam 2,000 years before is that the Roman engineers of the Sassanians built their major dam on the Karkheh River not the Dez, a few miles to the east. The Dez flows down a steep gorge and provides a perfect setting for a storage lake to guarantee a minimum summer flow. The Sassanians and the Romans could have built such a dam – they had the materials and manpower – but lacked the necessary technology to construct a tunnel or conduit at the bottom of the dam to let a controlled amount of water through. In this the new Pahlavi Dam and the other dams planned, including one across the Karkheh near the old Sassanian site, and other advances planned by the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority (modeled after the TVA) represent a much greater manipulation of nature since they will eliminate the danger of floods and drought entirely.)
A showpiece was found in sugar cane. Arab historians in the 12th century had written of cane growing “in the plain as far as the eye could see.” But modern Iran was short of sugar. Today at Haft Tapeh (or “Seven hills,” named after the existence of seven large burial mounds in the area) 13,000 acres produce one of the world’s highest unit yields nearly five tons of refined sugar per acre. The acreage is currently being doubled and a new $30 million paper plant, Iran’s first, is now running to make better use of cane fiber.
The initial intent of the Shah and Lilienthal and his planners was that the renaissance of Khuzestan could be done by the scattered population of traditional farmers living there. (At the present time the total population of Khuzestan is 2.5 million of which 60 per cent live in the big oil towns near the Persian Gulf on lands that during ancient times up to the arrival of Alexander the Great and after were still underwater as part of the Persian Gulf. Thus the real current population of what was ancient Elam is only 173,888. Of these only about 68,000 people live in villages and the rest in the presently booming towns of Dezful and Andimeshk. Shush today has about 7,000 inhabitants.)
The aim was to reclaim the land and productivity which had existed 2,000 years ago under the Sassanians. (One is commonly told the period of agricultural decline only lasted 700 years but this is highly inaccurate.)
At first the government gave the local farmers free fertilizer. When some refused to use it, arguing it was against the will of Allah and unnatural, the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority (KWPA) forcibly put it on. After that fertilizer gained acceptance and even popularity. But the area did not develop into huge mechanized farms or show any signs of moving that direction. The canals and water distribution system had been built to serve traditional farming but it was decided some other way had to be found to get the region into huge mechanized farms using the latest technology.
The Shah first had to break the back of the area’s landlords, mostly feudalistic Arab sheikhs. In sweeping land reform, as throughout Iran, by four years ago he had pretty well seen that each strip of land in the villages was distributed to those actually farming it. While production jogged along fairly well, the farmers still found they lacked the means to really modernize. No credit, no money, no machinery on a big scale. Individual farmer-owners couldn’t make it.
By then, around the town of Andimeshk some 30 miles north of Shush (Susa), a regulated supply of Dez River water was already available, coursing through concrete channels to the first 50,000 acres of the Dez Irrigation Project. When the canals are completed in 1973, water will be available for 250,000 acres, many of them long desert. The new Dam, named after the Shah or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi Dam, which blocks the Dez River in a narrow gorge above Andimeshk is the highest in the Middle East at 647 feet and cost $85 million; it will produce 520,000 kilowatts of electricity…plus provide a year round supply of water for the plain.
In the end a decision was made to try bringing in big, privately financed developments, the kind of “agribusiness” which had transformed the desert valleys of California with its big capital and big technology. Two American companies came first and each was given a thirty-year lease. The land of 58 villages was preempted for their use and the farm families who owned them reimbursed.
The biggest company was headed by Hashem Naraghi, a 52-year old native-born Iranian who had learned English from some of the 28,000 American troops stationed in Andimeshk during World War II. (The highway from the Persian Gulf to the Caspian Sea, Russia’s sole lifeline during most of the war, passes a mile east of Shush.) Accompanying the troops to the U.S., Naraghi arrived with only $1,400 in 1944. He bought a tractor and started leveling land for California farmers. In time, he made enough money to buy his own spread in San Joaquin County, where he now has 11,000 acres in nuts, fruits and row crops. Now the “world’s largest almond grower,” with a country home that resembles a medieval castle, Naraghi had made himself a millionaire several times over. In an interview with Fortune magazine last year, he was quoted as saying, “with enough water for irrigation, enough power for processing plants, and enough insecticides and fertilizers from petrochemical plants nearby, success is almost guaranteed. Anyone who can’t make it in Khuzestan has no business being a farmer.”
The second company (a third has just been announced, owned by Royal Dutch Shell) had a somewhat different character. It was headed by George Wilson, 78, who headed the California Farm Bureau Federation from 1951 to 1955 who had first laid eyes on Khuzestan back in 1949 when he flew over it enroute from Iraq to Pakistan. Fortune quoted him as saying, “I saw those big rivers and all that land laying there, and it looked gol-darned good to a farmer like me. I thought then I’d like to have a piece of it someday.” Wilson’s company, in which some $10 million will eventually be invested, is a joint venture of Wilson’s Trans World Agricultural Development Company, Iranian private investors, Dow Chemical, Deere Company and the Bank of America. Called “Iran-California Co.” it plans a broad agricultural mix of wheat, cotton, sugar beets, alfalfa, oil seeds, winter vegetables and dairying.
Naraghi has invested $3 million in his first 10,000 acres and expects to invest a total of $10 million into the 45,000 acres he ultimately plans to work. Fortune also quoted him as saying, “Labor cost is one tenth of what it is in California and almost everything does well. Asparagus grows faster here than in California and with a better root system. I can get ten cuts of alfalfa here a year and the protein content of Khuzestan alfalfa is higher than any other in the world.” By early 1971, Naraghi was airlifting asparagus to Europe’s winter markets, pelletizing alfalfa for export to Japan and planting 5,000 acres in oranges and lemons, tomatoes, table grapes and strawberries, planning to can what he couldn’t sell fresh.
Understandably the transformation of Elam, where the first breakthroughs in agriculture had come eight and nine thousand years before, attracted widespread attention. There were some critics. The World Bank’s Wolf Ladijinsky pointed out, not always coolly, that a disproportionate share of Iran’s resources was being awarded a minute part of the farm land that needed help. Iran had not the resources, he argued, to absorb in industry and agribusiness the huge new labor force that would be created by a modern equivalent of a wholesale “enclosure” movement. He favored devoting more attention instead to the nation’s largest semi-skilled force: the small farmer, who in many parts of the country had not progressed much beyond the agriculture of the Neolithic age. If there were ghosts in the old ruins of Susa they could only watch and wait. Until thirty years before the few houses clustered around Daniel’s Tomb had been at the mercy of roaming desert Bedouins who four times since then had burnt and sacked the town. Even as late as November, 1970, a dozen horse-borne Arab Bedouins one night had ridden up to Shush after dark and, in a furious exchange of-rifle fire with the local police post, had shot and killed a village farmer in a still unsettled blood feud.
Just west of Shush in the jungle along the Karkheh River, leopards and hyenas roamed and great yellow-tusked boars as big as oxen thrashed through the underbrush; beyond the river was a no-man’s land where no law existed but tooth and claw and a man could be picked to pieces by the Bedouins and left for dead. Most felt it was a blessing that civilization, in whatever Garb, was coming home again, back to its birthplace.
The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars and they felt the dry earth with their fingers…. The tenants, from their son-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields…. Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated the mathematics that drove them, and some were afraid, and some worshiped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from thought and from feeling. If a bank or a finance company owned the lend, the owner man said, The Bank – or the Company – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time…. The tenant sat in his doorway, and the driver thundered his engine and started off…and the iron guard bit into the house corner, crumbled the wall, and wrenched the little house from its foundation, so that it fell sideways, crashed like a bug….The moving, questing people were migrants now….There in the Middle – and Southwest had lived a simple agrarian folk who had not changed with industry, who had not farmed with machines….and then suddenly the machines pushed them out and they swarmed out on the highways….and in the eyes of the hungry there in a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
The Grapes of Wrath
It has happened over again and again.
For long periods in the long span of the past 10,000 years, man has from time to time been able to preserve some sort of harmonious rural culture and village way of life by achieving a steady balance between the size of population, the amount of arable land, the techniques of cultivation, the quantity of productive surplus and the pressure of family stability.
When one or the other goes, and it has almost always been the size of population, the elements of this equilibrium start to disintegrate leading to farther cultural evolution and some major changes in the methods of producing food’.
This has, indeed, been going on right from the first. The periods of equilibrium, however, have grown shorter from ancient to modern times.
As discussed earlier, man first made the shift from hunting and collecting roots and berries to stock raising and agriculture around 8,500 to 8,000 years ago in mountain valleys where the withdrawal of the glaciers and the lakes and rivers formed by them made such a transformation both possible and probably inevitable. Along with the wild animals, he preyed upon and also in search of greener pastures, man soon descended from the foothills of the Anatolia and Zagros mountains into the greater Mesopotamian plain. Here, in its northeasterly extreme, what became known as the land of Elam, man first applied his mountain-learned skills of wheat and barley cultivation and sheep-herding, on the plain. He thus created in Elam, by about 4,500 B.C. or a few centuries earlier, a sizeable rural population in more than a hundred villages. If the human population on earth multiplied 16 times between 8,000 and 4,000 B.C. because of the agricultural revolution, as is widely accepted, then Elam, where agriculture first spread to the plain, leading to all sorts of technological breakthroughs, must have experienced a much greater population explosion.
Note: Fellahin is the plural of fellah, “Arabic word for “peasant”
There is every indication that it did and that population pressure led first to experiments with irrigation along Elam’s five rivers, migration to non-rain fed areas in southern Elam and the development of agriculture totally dependent on irrigation and the spread of the even larger population this made possible some fifty to one hundred miles to the west to settle along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. The region, or Mesopotamia proper, offered the basis for the first grouping of men into towns or temple, communities of farmers, priests and a few artisans, instead of staying in the small village communities of the plain’s first phase of settlement in Elam. This took place, as observed earlier, between 4,000 and 3,500 B.C. and gave rise, in Mesopotamia, to the development of the Sumerian civilization. As also noted before, the emergence of towns, soon followed by the invention of writing, appears to have taken place simultaneously in Elam and Sumer, with each developing separate languages. But generally, Sumer seems to have quickly submerged Elamite culture since toward the end of this period the Elamites abruptly stopped producing the beautiful painted pottery which was their heritage from their mountain ancestors and switched to the monochrome red ware common in Sumer. Most remarkable is that shortly before 3000 B.C. the number of village settlements in Elam dropped from 130 to a known 39.
From our knowledge of Sumerian and Elamite society it is not difficult to guess what happened. Agrarian communities of the scattered village type had developed and survived in Elam until the introduction of large scale irrigation. This technological advance, plus the continued existence of fishermen and herdsmen living cheek, by jowl with the cultivators, created the need far a managerial class. Also, the more elaborate Elamite, and Mesopotamian water engineering became, the heavier the tasks of maintenance and the more chance of a general breakdown. Elaborate canal and dike systems had the drawback of exposing the population to greater periodic disasters in time of flood or drought, almost in proportion to the technical complexity of their style of gravity-flow irrigation.
Thus as society grew more complex, the need arose for more of a centralized authority. In both Elam and Sumer, this took the form of priestly colleges who supervised the maintenance of the canals and dikes, allocated land, settled disputes, maintained boundary markers and saw that some share of the harvest was stored in temple granaries. This authority grew because the services of the priests to the community became vital; they alone could calculate the seasons, lay out canals, keep accounts and maintain law and order.
Indeed, it was not long before the priests in Elam and Sumer evolved a theology which held that man was created expressly to free the gods from working and was thus considered a slave of the gods, obliged to serve ceaselessly under threat of punishment through drought or floods, which meant starvation or having to organize a war party against another city-state which had food.
By 3000 B.C. intercity warfare was already frequent along with the construction of massive city walls, the abandonment of outlying villages and the clustering of farmers around these centers and the logical rise of first soldiers, then generals and finally kings. And gradually small, family-sized farms of free men came to replaced by larger estates farmed with the economies of scale by serfs and then, usually seized as prisoners of war, by actual slaves. Unhappily, no John Steinbeck lived to chronicle this story. If there had been, perhaps his words would not have been all that different from those Steinbeck used to describe the uprooting of the Joad family and their journey to the “golden lend” of California in the 1930s. One can easily imagine:
“The owners of the land came onto the land….They came in open chariots and they felt the dry earth with their fingers….The, peasants in that part of Elam, from their son-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the chariots drove along the fields….Some of the priests or soldiers were kind because they hated what they had to do…and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be a priest unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves….If a temple owned the land, the priest said, the Temple – needs – wants – insists – must have – as though the Temple were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them ….There in Elam had lived a simple agrarian folk who had not changed with irrigation, who had not farmed with canals and dikes….”
Much of the world’s peasantry would escape the fate of the Elamites and Sumerians for the following 5,000 years. Indeed, as the story of mankind progressed, an enormous stability settled over peasant society, which comprised the vast majority of humankind. Whether in Europe, Asia, Africa or Latin America, village cultures grew to have a great deal in common. The peasant not only had his personal ties with the soil but had a strong sense of community; the village was the fixed point by which he knew his own position in the world and his relationship with all humanity. Considerations of kinship and blood ties had heavy weight; the head of the family had to provide food, shelter and clothing for all and each member in torn was obligated to work for his food and shelter. There were also communal rights and obligations such as the right to graze cattle, cut fodder and gather wood anywhere in the village providing one did not infringe on the livelihood of others. Peasant hospitality demanded such services be provided as loans without interest and hospitality without cost. Such customs and delicate balances, which varied remarkably little from one continent and country to the next, were what held village life together.
The greatest danger to this traditional social structure which still is the life style for a majority of the human race – has always been the monetarization of the economy of the village. As mentioned in the last chapter, Darius the Great after ascending the Persian throne in 522 B.C. introduced coinage throughout most of the civilized world, or from India to Ethiopia to the Greek cities of Asia Minor. While this had great effect on trade and urban commerce, it had very little effect on traditional subsistence agriculture. Hence peasant society then and during the conquest of Alexander the Great, the rise and fall of the Greek and Roman Empires and on into the Middle Ages was able to preserve its enormous stability or what might, be described as a deep, cushiony ability to take blows and yet to keep things as they were despite wars, revolutions and the rise and fall of empires and dynasties. In large areas of the world this rural stability was preserved until only the last few years.
But in Europe its erosion and even total collapse began in the 18th century. Until then world population growth was well below the rate of 1 per cent a year, the rate at which population doubles in about 100 years. Then in the 18th century came a precipitous rise. Between 1750 and 1850, the population of the continent leaped from about 140 million to 260 million. In addition, by 1915, some 250 million Europeans and their descendants lived outside the continent. By 1917, the population of Europe had risen to 400 million; where one man had stood in 1750, by 1917 there were three.
This European population explosion came under the beneficent guise of a fall in the death rate, particularly of children under two, which had begun gradually a century before, in 1650. Why more infants all over Europe should start surviving remains something of a mystery. It appears the same thing happened in 1650 in China, India and the Middle East, which together with Europe, were the centers of the world’s great civilizations. The assumption is that some sort of ecological process had worked itself out, with age-old epidemic checks on population growth fading to mere endemic attrition. The tremendous upsurge in some countries the past 50 years, of course, can be directly attributed to medical advances and the introduction of DDT, virtually wiping out the scourge of malaria.
Whatever the causes, the consequences in 18th and 19th century Europe were unmistakable. Most of the expanding population was urban end multiplied the demands upon agriculture. The peasants maintained the land could not be stretched. Why not? answered the cities, under a more efficient organization and method of production. In England experimentation began to eliminate the fallow year that was then keeping one third of the land annually out of production. Governments across Europe began passing legislation to consolidate all tiny plots into unified holdings and to liquidate all common fields.
Which brings as back to Steinbeck:
“The government officials of the land came onto the land, or more often their surveyors or clerks came. They came in closed carriages laden with documents and they felt the dry earth with their fingers…. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed carriages drove along the fields, stopping to measure the land and quick in reckoning…. Some of the officials were kind because they hated what they had to do…. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. If a village or community owned the land, the official said, the Government or the Ministry – needs – wants insists – must have – that the peasant himself become the landowner, each to have his own farm proportionate to his former share and in one piece. The communal holdings were to disappear; every plot would be individual property…. But the cost of the proceedings, the requirement of building a fence, left the farmer in debt. He found himself compelled to raise crops to be offered for sale and there were now no longer common meadows where his cows could graze nor common woods where he could gather firewood. Now, for the first time, he found himself caught between rising charges and fixed income and he could foresee the greatest disaster of all, the loss of his land. He now had to compete with the old landlords whose great holdings operated with the efficiency of the new methods and ultimately of the new machinery. Steadily the chill of mounting debt blanketed the village. And then the day came when the finance company or bank owned the land, and a new owner men came to say, the Bank or the Company – needs – wants – insists – most have…. The tenant sat in his doorway, and saw the emptiness of the village, the tumbled huts, no longer home to anyone; it was time to go…. The moving, questing people were migrants now…. There throughout Europe had lived a simple agrarian folk who had not changed with industry, who had not farmed with machines and then suddenly the new methods and the new machinery pushed them out and they swarmed out on the highways….and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath….”
In all, 35 million European peasants migrated to the United States in the century after 1820, creating a labor force that permitted the expansion of American industry and the fluidity of a social structure that would be the most open society in human history, as well as the richest and the most neurotic and restless. A society, indeed, in which one of the greatest novels to be written would be a masterful, angry denunciation of the injustice and inhumanity which grew out of one of the last chapters in the history of agricultural development: the modernization and mechanization of farming in the American Middle West and West. As Steinbeck wrote: “In the West there was panic when the migrants multiplied on the highways. Men of property were terrified for their property. Men who had never been hungry saw the eyes of the hungry. Men who had never wanted anything very much saw the flare of want in the eyes of the migrants…. They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. Those goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything….
George Wilson, a 78-year-old California farmer, has never forgiven Steinbeck for this and other passages in The Grapes of Wrath. “The Okies were dirty and ignorant; why some of those people lived just like animals,” he says today, an angry scowl passing over his stern, Old Testament face. “Sure, we turned them away. But only because we already had twenty more families living in the barn. I’ll bet you almost every one of the children of those people has gone to college and got good jobs today. Why Steinbeck…” and he will go on and on, shaking his head and running a hand through his white hair in frustration like a man who feels himself unfairly bested in an old argument from which he has never quite fully recovered. Near the close of The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck attacked the big companies which bought canneries so they could pay a low price for fruit and, yet keep the price of canned goods up, continuing, “And the little farmers who owned no canneries lost their farms, and they were taken by the great owners, the banks… As time went on, there were fewer farms. The little farmers moved into town for a while and exhausted their credit… And then they too went on the highways. And the roads were crowded with men ravenous for work, murderous for work.”
Wilson, helped by friends, was one of the few small farmers who managed to survive this period and become prosperous during the forties. For many years during the fifties he was president of the California Farm Bureau, developing such a strong interest in agricultural development in Asia and Africa he formed his own consultative firm, Transworld Agricultural Development, with about fifteen other California farmers, which has been involved in Libya and rice-growing in West Africa. But his major enterprise has been to head a company formed by Iranian private investors, Dow Chemical, Deere & Co. and the Bank of America to develop a 25,000 acre farm as part of the Shah of Iran’s hope of bringing the Khuzestan Plain of ancient M am back to life by encouraging agribusiness on a California scale.
“Gol darn.” says Wilson, explaining his motives, “I was helped as a boy without anything and I’d like to help others before I die.” Then he adds, “And I want to prove a point. That American technology is not enough if you want to get real production. The only way you really get production is to get American farmers in here with the equipment, financing, chemical fertilizers and know-how.”‘ He himself doesn’t say it, but he also wants to prove a point to his old adversary, the late John Steinbeck, the agriculture can be modernized and mechanized in ancient Elam where it first began without all the suffering and injustices of California in the 1930s.
This may not be easy since the Iranian government, to make way for the three big agribusinesses already in operation, has been buying the land of the farmers from 58 villages within the project area, often, or usually against the desire of the peasants to part with it. Few voices, other than those of the peasants themselves, have been raised in protest.
But one of these has been Wilson’s. “We’ve got to help these farmers get back their own land.” he says. “We’ve taken it away, now it’s up to us to get it back to them. We’ve got to set our sights whereby in three years we can say to our best men, ‘You take fifty acres. If in five years you can prove you’re a farmer, we’ll lease it to you cheap. There’s no trouble so far, but there will be if we don’t get a record of turning land back to the local people. We’ll do it quietly and if it works, we’ll do a little more. And when our time is up, we’ll present everybody with a fait d’accompli. With dams, land leveling, canals, access roads and modern farming methods, we can eliminate the dangers of flood and drought on this plain for the first time in history. And with cold storage, packing and better seed selection, we can eliminate a 30 per cent loss of production. We want to do better by these people than what’s been done by’em before.”
Between nine and ten o’clock in the morning. A dark leaden-colored mass was creeping over the sky towards the Citadel. Red zigzags of lightning gleamed here and there across it. There was a sound of far away rumbling. A warm wind frolicked through the bazaar, bending trees, flapping awnings and stirring up the dust. In a minute there would be a sport of March rain.
Karim, a short stocky Kurd of forty-six, hurried through the village, heading for the fields and vegetable gardens of his friend, Murad, the farmer. His face is weathered and seamed and his head is wrapped in a white cloth.
“Hello! Salaam Aleikum!” he shouts to every one he meets in a horse, gravelly voice. People nod in reply but are preoccupied with the approaching rain and are busy carrying goods inside from sidewalk stands. On the bridge across the Shauer below the Citadel, Karim meets Seyfullah, Murad’s bosom friend and tenant of a barley field. Seyfullah, as always, is wearing a black overcoat, black suit and black derby hat, and is staggering from the wind.
“Seyfullah! Salaam Aleikum. Where is Murad?”
“At the gardens,” answers Seyfullah and the two of them pass a large roped-off field where two Frenchmen and a crew of some fifty or sixty workers are excavating the ruins of an old palace and find Murad in a hut just beyond. Like Seyfullah, Murad is wearing a coat, black raincoat and patent leather shoes but has a white turban like Karim’s wound loosely about his head; his clothes are spattered with mud since he has been watering his fields and he is crouching just inside the hut, looking with drowsy, dreaming eyes at the dark rain cloud.
“Murad,” Karim addressed him. “What are you doing in this cold time, sitting here in the fields?”
Murad’s lined, sun-weathered face was overspread with a smile. “What about you?” Inside the hut, Jusuf, another villager, was making a fire of brush.
“Today you make tea for me?” Karim joked.
“Why you not bring tea, Karim?”
“When you go to visit your friends you don’t carry with you.” Karim asked the young man where he was working and learned Jusuf now had a job as a tractor driver at the sugar plantation at Haft Tapeh, earning 275 riyals (or about $3.80) a day.
“What’s better, that or farming?” Murad asked.
“Farming is better,” Jusuf answered.
“Damn you and your farming.” Murad grinned. At fifty, Murad had been a farmer all of his life; his father and his wife’s father had been the first two men to cultivate wheat and vegetables in what had been desert land around the village.
“I had twenty hectares of land in Safiabad,” Jusuf said. “The Company took it. The government took the land and didn’t pay. Just told my brother, ‘You go and maybe after I’ll give you, some money.’ Now at Haft Tapeh when the men cut the cane, I fill up the wagon and poll it back to the storehouse on the tractor. Drop off a load and go back.”
“What’s good? Before or now?”
Jusuf shrugged and put some more brush on the fire. “I don’t know. Before is better. Before everything is cheap. ‘Now I gotta buy clothes, milk, everything; I have money and after a couple of weeks I have nothing.”
Murad laughed. “Before Jusuf is working for gentleman. He much jigjig with that gentleman.
“Jusuf ignored him “Eight hours, six days a week. Six o’clock in the morning the bus is coming to take all the people to Haft Tapeh. Comes back at four o’clock. One hour for lunch.”
“Who Is making the money?” Karim asked.
Jusuf shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe the government. The Bank Melli in Haft Tapeh pays you. Everybody has a card. You stand around the window until a man calls your number – number two, number forty, number sixteen – like that, every fifteen days.”
“With so many working at Haft Tapeh now, all is dear in the bazaar.” Karim complained. “Before one packet of cigarettes was two riyals. Now it’s twenty. Before one kilo of sugar was twenty riyals. Now thirty riyals one kilo.”
“Yes.” Murad agreed. “Before two riyals each, now thirty riyals.”
“Five o’clock get up, bus comes at 6:30. Go to sleep at nine, work every day but Friday. Before back in the village, if a man wasn’t busy, he could go to sleep at 11 and get up at seven.
Murad asked, “Those people who go to work with you on the bus in the morning, you know them?”
“The guys on my shift I know, the 6:30 shift. My friend, Tallib, works with me. I know all the people who work with me. Oh, I don’t know all two thousand men who work at Haft Tapeh but I know everybody who takes the bus from Shush.”
“I work for myself. You, work for company.” Murad said.
“What’s better?” Karim asked. “To be with Haft Tapeh or work at one of those new agribusiness companies?”
“Haft Tapeh is better. Naraghi* is hard working. He drives his men hard and he pays hard. At Haft Tapeh you work seven hours; with Naraghi it’s ten hours a day. But he gives 35-45 riyals an hour.”
“When they bulldozed your village down at Safiabad, what happened to the people?” Murad asked.
“I don’t know. I went down to Abadan for a job; went over to Kuwait for a year.”
“I heard from some men at Safiabad.” Karim said. “When Naraghi takes the land, the young men get jobs and the old men stay at home.”
Murad: “Yah, if he takes the land, he takes a check from the bank, gives money. If a man has sons, working men, he gives them jobs.”
“Nah, baba!” Jusuf said. “Naraghi he first gives him money, a check, and after he sells that man some house. They make every family a new house. My brother got one. He had to pay for it. He got paid 300,000 riyals for twenty hectares. He had to buy the house to get a job. My brother had to pay 40,000 for the new house. He’s working for Naraghi as an irrigator.”
“One hundred riyals a day. My brother got 300,000 riyals for twenty hectares. I myself was farming government land. I had no paper so got nothing.”
“Na, baba,” said Murad with some heat. “Your land in Safiabad, same as our land in Shush. This land was not government before, it was desert, nobody’s land. This was for the people to plant. So they must pay you. All land is the same. You’ve got one God and one King. No more. They have to pay you.”
“Sure. Okay,” Jusuf suspected Murad was worried about his own land.
“You’re young, Jusuf.” Karim said. “Murad’s an old man. Maybe Murad says…he’s busy all the time cutting grass, planting wheat; he don’t know what he says. How does your brother like his new house?”
*Hashem Naraghi, 52, an Iranian-born naturalized American who went to California with $1,400, became the world’s largest independent almond grower and a multimillionaire who returned to head the largest new agribusiness venture in Khuzestan.
“He likes it. Before everybody he had old house. Now with new house, it’s better. Before in our village we had no school, no bathhouse, nothing. Now even my wife likes it better in Shush. Many shops, food, new bread, fresh meat. Easy to shop. Plenty of schools. Electricity, Clean water.”
Karim: “You hear about the new tax? They raising the charge at the bathhouse from five to seven riyals in the public room and fifteen to twenty if you take one in the small rooms, The chief wants a new tax. I don’t know why. Maybe making school, new street, park.”
“Prices are going up” Jusuf agreed. “I pay 250 riyals a month for one room and courtyard. For fresh water and electricity we have to pay 100 riyals extra, and I figure I spend 150 riyals a day for food for myself, my wife and the two babies. ‘Wheat, rice, oil, sugar, yogurt, it’s all going up.”
Jusuf rose and looked at the door of the hut, where raindrops, big and heavy, were falling on the dusty road. A big drop fell on his cheek and ran down like a tear to his unshaven chin. A well-dressed Persian couple, the woman wearing a black dress and high-heeled shoes, stood watching the archeologists digging in the rains. “I want to see that garden.” the woman said.
“It’s too muddy. It’s starting to rain.” her husband said.
“Never mind. I want to see it.” She moved past the hut toward Murad’s vegetable gardens. Near the hut two small mongrel dogs were growling at each other and Jusuf placed himself protectively between the dogs and the lady. Both Murad and Jusuf called “Hello, hello,” to the lady but she did not look their direction.
“This lady, maybe Teheran people.” Jusuf said.
“Nah, baba. Abadan. Tourists from Abadan. I see the car.”
Murad: “Hey, Jusuf, go get that lady and bring her back here.”
Jusuf: “Some foreign people work at Haft Tapeh. American people. If the engines in the sugar factory break they come and look at it. And there’s more over at the paper plant. They eat different. I never tried that American food.”‘
Murad grinned. “Come with me one night. I’ll give you some American food.” He lit a cigarette. “The wheat last year was good. This year it doesn’t look good. If not wheat in the village, even a rich man is poor.”
Jusuf took a large tractor key from his pocket and playfully longed at Murad. “C’mon, Murad, I’ll start your engine.” Murad backed off and Jusuf sat down again in the doorway of the hut, “Before in the war when the Americans and Russians came here to build cars, Naraghi went to America with those soldiers. They taught him how to drive a tractor. I knew Naraghi when he was a boy and lived in Dezful. Maybe now he’s only forty-five years. They say he made about $5 million in California.”
Karim sighed. “Maybe it’s better. If the government takes the land, we’ll get big farms in the village. Maybe my boys can find good jobs.”
Murad nudged Jusuf with his foot. “American people don’t like lazy man seated on the ground. If not working, they want you, to stand on your feet, not sit like that.”
Jusuf agreed. “If you sit and rest, the Americans look at their watches. ‘Are you sick? Are you tired?’ they ask.”
“Some people like too much to work.”
Karim picked at his teeth with a match. “At night around the castle lately, I’ve heard a lot of hyenas howling.”
“If a man is afraid, maybe a hyena will eat him. But if a man is strong, the hyena will run away.”
Murad yawned. Jusuf said, “Old Murad’s tired today. He got laid in the bathhouse last night.” For a time the only sound was the patter of rain dropping like fine shot on the young wheat and the parched road. Murad looked up to see a small patch of bright blue in the sky.
Murad: “The rain’s letting up. When I go to lunch I’ll put water on the beans. This land here, I don’t put too much water. It’s not a good field. This land is too hard. Only put some water and day after day these beans will be all right. If these beans get very high and some merchant comes, he’ll make a good buy. Those merchants, they don’t walk into the fields but stay on the road so it’s best to water heavy around the edges. If the beans is good, wheat is good, onions is good, I’ll get too much money and can pay back the bank. I’ll be all right.”
Karim: “That rain last night was not bad.”
Seyfullah, who had been inspecting his barley crop, rejoined them at the hut, his shoes covered with lumps of wet, heavy clay.
“When you finish watering your beans, Murad, you give me some water. Yesterday I saw the main canal. Why you don’t give me water?” Seyfullah slipped and almost toppled over.
Murad: “Take it easy.” Seyfullah: “When you finish your beans, give me water.”
Murad: “No. after I’m done.”
Seyfullah: “You don’t give me nothing. Abjabber doesn’t need all that water. He ought to let it come down to you and me. I need at least a couple of hours for my barley. Just two hours and my barley will be all right. Maybe tonight is raining too. Inchallah. Me and Shabel we wait and wait and nobody gives as water. Abjabber has water. Mahessen gets water and we get none.”
Karim: “How long the French been digging here now?”
Murad: “Just a year. Two years ago after the flood the government came and nsked if they could take some dirt from this field for the dikes. This piece was too high to irrigate so I just kept my tool shed on it and grew a few cucumbers. A bulldozer came and he hit this stone and when he saw it was something out of an old palace he telephoned Teheran. The first time Professor Ghirshman came here, he don’t know me, that this is my land. “Get out, bloody hell, what you do here?’ he shouts at me. ‘This land is the King’s. I want to digging here!’ He took me to the gendarmerie. I showed them my papers, that I own this land and Professor Ghirshman, he apologized. He said he only wanted to dig on that one piece of land. Ghirshman he was a very fat old man with a cane.”
Seyfullah: “That French lady down at Ja’afar Abad, she gets real mad if you go near where they’re working.”
Murad: “I fuck her one or two times and she’ll be all right. She’ll be out in the garden pulling weeds for me.”
Seyfullah: “You, hear about Kalaf Haidar and what he did when the government wanted his land for Haft Tapeh?”
“El Qazir Kalaf son of Haidar, the sheikh?”
“That is him, With forty wives, thirty daughters and forty-four sons.”
“Makes almost a hundred families for that man.”
Seyfullah: “I’ll tell you the story. It was about ten years ago. The first time when they wanted to make a sugar plantation at Haft Tapeh. No shops. No sugar then. Only sheep and some wheat fields. That land belonged to Kalaf Haidar. The Shah sent officials to say they wanted that land.
*Can also be spelled Khalaf Heydar
“I need that land for sugar.’ the Shah said. Kalaf, he sent word to the Shah, ‘I don’t sell that land for money. If you need that land, I give you present.’ The Shah sent a man again but Kalaf Haidar, he say, ‘No. I don’t sell you that land.’
“And the Shah said, ‘For one meter I pay five riyals.’ And Kalaf said, ‘I pay you fifty riyals for one meter to leave that land for me.’
“Kalaf Haidar then went to Teheran to see the Shahanshah.* He go to the castle of the Shahanshah, Iran. The Shah said, ‘Who are you?’
“‘I am Kalaf Haidar, from Huseinabad, Khuzestan.’
“The Shah said again, ‘Who are you?’
“‘I am Kalaf Haidar, live Huseinabad, Khuzestan. I come to Teheran to see you.’
The Shah said, ‘Oh, you are that man. I sent word to you I buy your land, five riyals per meter.’
“Kalaf said, ‘No, I don’t sell.’
“The Shah, he say, ‘I give you seven million toman* for that land. If you like, take it. If you not like, go away.’
“And Kalaf said, ‘I don’t like that seven million. I present you.'”
Nearby the hut, a donkey tied to a tree suddenly neighed, a loud, complaining, “hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw.” Seyfullah jumped at the sound and Karim explained it belonged to some old Bedouin man who was cutting grass in Murad’s sugar field. Seyfullah resumed his story.
“After that trouble they brought seven million toman to Huseinabad to pay Kalaf Haidar. But he no took the money. The official rang post and telegraph to the Shah and said, ‘That man he no take money.’
“He say, ‘I have many money in the bank. I no use money. If the Shahanshah needs that land, I present it to him. I no need money.’
“And my King, he say, ‘Yes. Okay. Okay, don’t trouble him. I must one time when I visit Khuzestan go and see that Kalaf Haidar.’
“Four years ago my King gave notice, ‘The Shahanshah, Iran, he want to come to Khuzestan.’ First time Kalaf Haidar got all the people, everybody, to stand along the road. Everybody from Shush-Daniel, Amalieh Teymoor, Saghvan, Bedouins, everybody to stand along the road to see the Shahanshah. Some cars come first with rifles and flags. People are dancing along the road. It’s Christmas. The Shahanshah has come. Maybe four or five cars come before and one man calls, ‘Everybody go back! Go back! The Shananshah is come. Everybody easy!’ The Shah comes. Many soldiers, many government people, same general manager, same captain, same lieutenant. Same that kind. And Shah comes to Shush. Only stays in car on road, not come down below.
“And the Shah he called, ‘I need to see Kalaf Haidar. He been here?’
“‘Yes,’ the people say. Everybody go to find. Where is the Kalaf Haidar? ‘Where is Kalaf Haidar?’
“One Bedouin chief is known as Ali Zamed. He say, ‘I’ll find him.’ He go easy, walk down below and find. ‘You Kalaf Haidar?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘The Shah wants to see you.’ “Okay.’
“The Shahanshah of Iran saw the two men coming, Ali Zamed and Kalaf Haidar. The Shah opened the car door and came down to the ground and after Kalaf Haidar bent down and wants to kiss the Shah’s shoes. The Shah say, ‘No, no,’ and he lifts him up. He speak with him five minutes. The Shahanshah and Kalaf Haidar.
“Why you no do business with me on land?’
Kalaf Haidar, he say, ‘I’m no businessman that I sell land. I like to present the Shahanshah land. Present. No money.’
*”king of kings,” traditional title of Persian rulers
“The Shah say, ‘Why you no take money?’
“And Kalaf Haidar, he say, ‘I have much money. I’m very rich. I no use money.’ Last price, Kalaf Haidar he say, ‘I give you that land for nothing. I only present you. I am not use money. Only my business that.’
“And the Shah asked him if he has paper for that land. And Kalaf Haidar, he say, ‘Yes. I don’t give you that letter. Sometime maybe you change King. New King comes. He don’t need that land and gives it back. I’ll keep the paper for that time. I only keep that paper, that letter for me and I’ll give you that land. When new Shah comes, maybe I use that land.’
“The Shah, he say, ‘Good. What time I need that land, I making food, sugar for my people, I take. If don’t need that land, I give back.’ Then the Shananshah of Iran asked this Kalaf Haidar, “Why you not come to Teheran and live? Build good house, good shop. You have many money, rich man.”
“Kalaf Haidar say, ‘No, I don’t come Teheran. I like live in outside. Is better for me. I keeping my land, my family in one place. Maybe after me dead, you digging my land and put me in it.”‘
Seyfullah paused. “That’s all. No more. Finish.” How old is Kalaf Haidar now?” Jusuf asked.
“Old. Old,” answered Seyfullah.
“Maybe 120, 130 years…” said Karim. “Yah, he’s around. He’s eating. He’s working, everything. If you see Kalaf Haidar he’s all bones, meat, dark color, dirty clothes, black face, white hair, you think he’s poor man?”
“How much money?”
Seyfullah groaned. “Nah, baba. Don t ask. Plenty. He and Allah only know how much he has. Too rich.”
Murad: “The banks won’t take his money, he has too much. They tell him to bury it underground.”
Seyfullah: “Too rich. Nobody like him rich in this place. In Iran not like him.”
Murad: “That man has mach money. I have not same.
Seyfullah: “Me and Murad all the time around in the garden. Nobody pays as one riyal.” The donkey neighed again.
Karim: “Hungry? Thirsty? I don’t know.”
Seyfullah wanted out the door of the hut to call at the old Bedouin weeding in a nearby field, “Why you bring that donkey here?”
A wind had come up and carried the rain clouds away and now the sun appeared and flooded the fields, and the ruined palace, and the inside of the hot with its warm light. Murad rose to go and check the main canal and Karim followed after his friend. They came, out of the village and turned along the dirt road towards the canal about a mile away, going down an embankment and walking towards the place where the Shauer River is only a marshy pond fed by underwater springs. Murad is in no hurry; the two walk almost at random and talk all the way….
After fifteen minutes they met Ghulam, who with his brother, Abu Jabber-, had arrived in Shush from Kurdistan fourteen years before and through Ghulam’s brains and Abjabber’s muscle had built up the best vegetable farm in the village.
“How about your fields?” Ghulam, a tall worried-looking Kurd in his thirties asked Murad. “You putting some water on?”
Murad: “Yes, beans.”
Ghulam: “Last night it rained here and not in Amalieh Teymoor* village. [Named after Tamerlane, Timor – the Lame.] My brother put water on the sugar beets and afterward the water came. You put water on last night, Murad?”
Murad: (jokingly) “Last night I was busy making jigjig at the bathhouse.”
But Ghulam was in no mood for humor, “Did you hear? The chief in Dezful, he not only told me, he’s telling everybody. They’re sending a letter out to everybody in Shush. All this land, the government will take. Maybe after one year. They say, ‘Don’t make house, put in road, because we’re going to need your land.’ Maybe a big company will come here.”
Murad: “I’m selling mine.”
Ghulam: “How much?”
Murad: “I got an offer for 900,000 riyals for three and a half hectares. They went the land to build shops and houses.”
Ghulam: “You don’t care. Your land is right in the village. But what about us? If the government, American people, rich man comes and takes the land, what do you do if you have tractor? Abjabber and me got a tractor from the company. We still owe 110,000 riyals. I heard the government only gives 8,000 riyals per hectare and the government takes 60 per cent of that in taxes. A good price would be 100,000 riyals per hectare.
Murad: “Your tractor cost 220,000 riyals?”
Ghulam: “Yes, but we still owe half. I heard they’re going to take our land from this one man, because he goes to Teheran, speaking to the King about this land in Khuzestan.”
Murad: “You know for sure?”
Ghulam: “I know. One man’s been to Teheran and seen the Shah. They want 250,000 hectares of land for companies. It’s true. Everyday I’ve been to government offices in Ahwaz and Dezful. They want all the land around Shush and when they took the land at Dezful, they only paid 8,000 riyal per hectare. If the government takes my land and he only pays me 8,000 riyals I don’t know what will happen. Maybe he gives Naraghi, maybe he keeps himself. If they only give me 8,000 riyal, I’ll make trouble and go to jail. Abjabber and me have got the most modern vegetable garden in Khuzestan. There’s nobody like us. We make a good garden, put in the new seeds, the dwarf wheat. There’s nobody like me and my brother. All the time we’re busy. We don’t leave any land fallow. New wheat is coming from Turkey, America, okay, I buy. I’m not afraid of the cost. But if many companies coming to Khuzestan, there’s nothing for me. Maybe somebody will kill me, but I won’t give them this land. Me and my brother have worked like slaves on this land for fourteen years. We won’t sell cheap.”
Ghulam talked unceasingly as they moved toward his fields.
“I’ve spent a million riyals on this land. I owe the banks 500,000 riyals. I’m in debt 500,000 riyals and most pay 100,000 more on the tractor. Somebody’s saying now that the government will offer me 10,000 per hectare. That’s nothing for me. What can I do after that? What my wife, my sons do? My children go cry, ‘Baksheesh, baksheesh!’ in the bazaar? It’s nothing for me. Every month we pay our laborers 30,000 riyals. That money is going into Shush. My woman worked seven years with me in the fields to get the farm going. Now besides me and my brother, one with eight children and three wives and one with three children and one wife, there’s our mother and two tractor drivers. All eat at our house; we’ve got one big house for everybody.
“I don t want anybody’s favor. I only want to know if the government takes my land, what am I going to do? Beg in the bazaar? I have twenty hectares of land here. When there’s any news, any talk in the government, I’m the first to know. In garden farmers, I’m number one. Everybody, he know me. If I don’t make trouble with the chief of the next village, nobody – you, Murad, or Mahessen or Seyfullah would get water. That government man in Shush says, ‘Yes, maybe they’re taking the land.’ He told me; he’s my friend.
“Before down in Abdul Khan Village, the government took all their land and paid them only 8,000, 10,000 per hectare, not more.
One man, Mohammed Ali, he had six hectares down in Safiabad and was already in debt and when he couldn’t pay for a new house he couldn’t get a new job with the company either and they said, ‘Okay, go away!’ and he came and works for me for 80 riyals a day.”
In his fields they found Abjabber and several laborers planting cucumbers and tomatoes.
Abu Jabber, as was his full name, was a taciturn, huskily-built Kurd in his mid-thirties. He was known to always share the hard physical field labor with his men. When he heard what Ghulam had been saying to them, he grumbled, “He talks too much.”
“If it had rained an hour more today it would have been good,” Murad said, seeing the earth was already dry again.
“We killed a boar last night.” Abjabber said. “One of my men shot it with Fakraie’s rifle.”
It lay on the edge of a field of sugar beet, an enormous brown-haired beast almost the size of an ox. An old Bedouin woman who had a hut nearby had already cut off the tail and husks and had slit open the boar’s stomach to remove the entrails. As they approached she and some of the other Bedouins who gathered firewood in the jungle just west of Shush were standing around it. The man who had killed the boar showed Karim and Murad how he had hidden in a pit dug into the ground and covered with grass as a blind.
“It was about seven o’clock last evening.” the man said. “It came out of the jungle and across the canal. It was so big I thought it was a cow and didn’t pay much attention until I heard it snort. I aimed between its eyes and it leapt up in the air and fell. It only took the one shot.”
“Every night it came out of the jungle to eat sugar beets,” the old Bedouin woman said.
“It was at least ten years old,” said Karim.
“Every night it came,” she went on. “Everyone in our camp was afraid of it. He lived in the jungle. We’d only look through the brush and see him when we went for wood every day. There he’d be, sleeping.”
“You seen many boars over there?” asked Murad.
“There nearly a hundred, a hundred maybe that live in that jungle. Two more come out every night to eat in that field, down the hollow.”
“I’ll try to get those two now,” the hunter said. “Next time they come I’ll see what time and the next night I’ll be waiting for them.” “I dug that hole.” said another of Abjabber’s laborers. “I had no rifle but used to shout to drive the boars away. I never knew they was this big.” Five or six dogs had gathered at the boar’s carcass now and were sniffing and growling at one another. One moved close to Karim and he kicked out at the dog, cursing it, “Hey, shaddup. I hit your nose. Keep quiet is better.”
The old Bedouin woman explained she had put the intestines of the boar in a plastic bag. “I put it in the sun to dry for six months and afterwards I’ll make it into a kind of flour, with some warm water. It makes good medicine.” She had put the plastic bag into a lotus tree to dry but was afraid a cat might reach it so Murad and Karim bent the tree over, put it on a much higher branch, and let it spring back high in the air as the old woman cackled with delight. “I stayed up all night watching to see a cat wouldn’t get that thing.” she told them.
“When I went into the jungle I saw that boar many times.” she went on, “but he was asleep and if he woke up, he ran away and I run away. He sleeps in those thickets of brush.”
“Did he chase the children?”
“No, I never took children with me. I’m afraid, maybe boy is dead if a boar sees him. Cut him up. I saw many times boars attack men, even big men; they came back with broken arms, all bloody. A boar, he can make many troubles even for a big man. One Bedouin girl, she went in that jungle six years ago and a boar got her, slit her stomach open. And she a virgin too.”
The old woman, with a cackle of satisfaction, went into Abjabber’s sugar field to cut grass. When Murad and Karim wandered back to where the men were working, Abjabber asked Murad, “Hey, you been to the main canal to see if nobody’s breaking up the flow?”
“No, I’ve just been watering my beans. But it seems like the water’s coming good.’ Some old Bedouin woman is taking weeds from your sugar field. Watch she don’t take the sugar plants.”
Abjabber called to a laborer, “Ali, somebody’s cutting grass in the sugar field. You go chase him away.” He turned to Karim and Murad. “Every night that boar was coming to eat in that field. There’s still two or three more coming out of that jungle. I borrowed that rifle from Fakraie’s. If I had a rifle of my own I could kill all of them.”
“”Why you don’t get a rifle?” Karim asked.
“They don’t give a permit. Before, yes, it was easy. But not now. Before you could own a rifle and a man could sleep at night. Now I have to stay out in the fields to keep the boars away. I think it’s on account of that Hatteh.”
“Hatteh’s been making trouble for twenty years now.” Karim agreed, Hatteh being a Bedouin from a village near Shush, who led a band of outlaw nomads. Every so often they raided a nearby village and had shot up Shush itself three months earlier; one man had been killed. It was a blood feud going back a generation but now the government had hired bounty hunters, also Arab Bedouins, to bring Hatteh in, dead or alive. It was believed the Iraq government, just across the border twenty miles west of Shush, was giving Hatteh money to stir up trouble among the Arabs. Not long before an air force bus a few miles to the north had been ambushed by men with a machinegun.
Murad asked Abjabber, “You’re not afraid of hyenas to stay out in the fields at night?”
“Na. baba. One time I trouble hyena. I have big knife and I killed it. First I took a stone and hit it in the head and stunned it and after I took a knife and hit him in the belly. I have to keep one man out here at night. One man I hired got so afraid by morning we had to take him to the hospital. Some of these boars and hyenas are as big as donkeys.”
“Ghulam was saying you got a notice the government or a company might take this land,” Karim said.
Abjabber grumbled something unintelligible and shouted to a laborer. “Hey, Ali, I asked you to go chase that woman out of the sugar field. You still here? Why you not go?”
“I will.” Ghulam called and he headed for the sugar beet field. In a moment he had reached the old Bedouin woman and they watched as the two of them began shooting at each other, waving their arms. Then Ghulam took the grass the woman had cut and threw it high in the air, scattering it to the wind. The old woman’s voice rose to a shriek, “I am a woman not a donkey! And you threw my grass, son of a dog! Only you and your brother have a garden here. Where are we to get grass? Before others always let as take grass from their fields. You have a bad nose!”
Abjabber watched for a moment and then told Karim and Murad, “I don’t trouble women.”
“Why don’t you ever trouble that woman?” shouted Ghulam, returned exasperated. “You keep quiet and then when I come I have to chase her out and I get the trouble. You tell such people and curse them two or three times and they won’t come back.”
Abjabber explained that up until a year or two before they had allowed the Bedouins to cut grass in their fields, but finally decided it was better and more economical to hire men to do it and sell the weeds for fodder in Shush. This was what the new companies also were doing.
Ali, the laborer Abjabber had called, came running up with his shovel. Abjabber told him Ghulam had already chased the woman away but then introduced Ali to Murad and Karim as the farmer from Safiabad who had lost his land to the new companies.
“I had six hectares in Bontatile Village.” Ali told them. In appearance the young man looked more Italian than Arab or Persian. The farmers of the Dezful area were descended, according to legend, from 70,000 Roman legionnaires captured along with the Emperor Valerian almost 2,000 years before.
Ali went on, “A year ago I was out sowing wheat and the government came and said, ‘Don’t plant that wheat, we need this land.’ I heard that the King was paying 260,000,000 riyals for 12,000 hectares at Safiabad, so I figured we would get around 21,000 to 22,000 per hectare, a fair price. Instead all they gave me – after taxes, they said – was 34,675 riyals. After that the bank kept all but 16,000 for debts they said I owed to pay for the new canals and fertilizer they had given me. With a wife and three children 16,000 riyals was nothing.”
Karim asked, “Did Naraghi offer you a job after he took your land?”
“Yes. A man came and said Naraghi was building a new village with many houses. If you bought a house, he said, you could get a job with Naraghi. I had six hectares of land but only got 34,675 riyals. After they took out for taxes and debts, I had 16,000 left. I take this in government office. I say, ‘I want like my friends. Can you make me a house?’ But that government man, he say, ‘No. not good enough. If you can sell something and raise 40,000 riyals, we’ll give you a good house and a job. Otherwise, go away.’ It was good land, my farm. Same as the land here in Shush. I was a farmer a long time. That land was my father’s and my father’s father’s.”
“How many families were there in your village?”
“Twenty-four. Three had to go away, same as, me. They came with a bulldozer and knocked down our houses so we had to go. Before that all twenty-four families wrote to the government in Ahwaz, we sent a letter, but nobody help us. I took my money to an office in Dezful. I say, ‘I have wife and children. I need house and job. That government man, he say, ‘No, only if you have 40,000 riyals. If you have 40,000 riyals you can stay. Otherwise, no. Go away.’ Before I have land, and every shop, every bank gave me credit. Now because I am a laborer, nothing. Before I put wheat in my land, and if I want shoes, clothes, the shop in Dezful give me. Now I have no land, they say, ‘No, no. Go away.”‘
“How many were there like you?” Karim asked.
“What about those that got jobs?”
“Up till now the new houses not ready so they live in the old ones. The rest of the houses they bulldozed already away. Finish.”
“Are the jobs with Naraghi good?”
“Not no good. Sixty, eighty riyals a day. ‘Nothing for working, with no farm, eight hours a day. Some of the men put 40,000 in a box and got a paper for that. They said, ‘I fix you house and you can stay in your village now and move in later. If have not 40,000, no house and no job. They say, ‘Go away!’ Every son or working man must have separate house and pay 40,000.”
Abjabber, who had returned to work, called across the field to Ali, “Go over and dig there, that trench.”
“Better put your shoes on.” Ghulam told him.
“I don’t need.” Ali said.
“Ali,” Abjabber called. “All this dirt you’re digging put on the other side. The land is very hard up for water. It’s too low. I’d like a pump here but the river’s too low and we can’t get permission from the government. Too many villages paying water taxes down below.”
Ali turned to go. “Many times I go back to that office. That government man he say, ‘Go out! Outside! Don’t come back again!’ Everybody with money stayed on. Only me and three others in our village. I tell them that land is my father’s and my grandfather’s. I say, that’s my land and not for you. But they take. Somebody don’t pay the 40,000, they hit his house with the bulldozer first.”
“Ali! Dig deep enough to let that water pass through.” For some time Abjabber stood by, setting the young man to work, then he rejoined Murad and Karim. He looked at Ali and then all around at his land.
“Maybe after one year, after two years, after two days more, if they want this land, maybe they won’t treat me any different from that laborer.” He spat on the ground. “I paid for preparing this land. I made it good for onions, sugar, beans, vegetables. Maybe it cost me 200,000 riyals. But I think, someday this land, is going to be good. I think, maybe then I’ll get some money. But up to now I am very much in debt. This land before was desert. For six, seven years, I dig, I plant, I put in water. If some government man comes to me and says, ‘You can go next land,’ I’m going to tell him, ‘No. I worked this land. It Is mine.'”
It was almost mid-afternoon when the two friends turned back toward the village. On the way, they sat down on the banks of the Shauer, and Murad pulled a piece of bread from his coat, broke it in two pieces and he and Karim began to eat. After eating, Murad stretched himself out on the grass and began to doze off. Karim gazed at the water, pondering. He had many things to think about. A Bedouin on horseback passed by on the road to Shush. He was carrying a transistor radio and Karim could hear a woman’s voice singing, “Bulbul dar kaffas…The duck is a beautiful bird….” A covey of gray sparrows, what the local people called goselik birds, flew into the sky. A row of straight-backed women clad in black passed by, carrying great piles of brushwood on their heads, gathered in the jungle to sell in the Shush bazaar.
On the way home they stopped at a lotus tree which Karim climbed to shake the branches while Murad gathered up the fallen berries for his children. Further on they left the road and climbed a small hill to look at the abandoned ruin of what had been a small mud-brick hut and courtyard. It had been the house of Murad’s father, where Murad had lived until he was fifteen years old. Like most of the land around Shush, what had once been fields had faded into desert. There were few signs there had been life here. No broken pottery or old seeds such as were often found in the diggings of old village settlements six, seven, eight thousand years old.
“Why did your father move?” Karim asked.
“The chief gave him land by Shush. Originally my father came down from the mountains of Luristan. He and his father raised sheep. He didn’t take to crop-raising until we moved here. But my father was glad to move into Shush. We had a lot of danger here from Bedouins, hyenas, boars. We even had lions in the jungle when I was a boy. And ostriches.”
Karim found a dead pigeon lying in the rubble, all but its head and wings eaten away. He scanned the fields around and saw an eagle sitting on a mound of earth not far away.
“He’s hungry again.” Karim said. “He’s not full now and he is coming back for more.”
Near the river bank, they stepped into a thicket of reeds and bulrushes. “Fish, too much fish here in the river,” Murad said, wishing he had brought a hook and some string. Murad could not resist kicking a few clods of earth off the bank into the water to hear them plop.
In the distance a group of men were irrigating their fields and they could see them running back and forth with shovels, shouting:
“Where Is Mohammed?”
“Mohammed not come.”
“Why Mohammed not come?”‘
“Quick, quick, this way it’s flowing.”
“Open that canal. This wheat has enough.”
“Why you take this water over there? All for you! All for you! I want water too!”
“This piece of canal is mine. In one hour is finished now.”
“‘Who is that speaking?”
“Okay. It’ll be all right.”
A Bedouin shepherd passed and they greeted him and stopped to talk for some minutes. “Ah, baba,” the shepherd complained, “all my lambs are sick. Because no rain. Some of the big herds are losing four or five a day. There’s too many sheep now and not enough grass. Not like there used to be.”
A handsome Bedouin woman, disdaining the veil of Islam, her face bare, came by driving some cows; she gave Murad a broad smile.
“You come and help me cut weeds,” he called after her.
She laughed and called over her shoulder, “What about your wife?”
The chief of Kabar Ali, a village just beyond Shush, met them in the road and they told him what Ghulam had said. He too had received a notification but told them, “It is up to the government, not for me. Whatever it does must be for the best.” He told them he had gone to Shush to attend a government ceremony. Officials and photographers had come and a medal was presented to a Bedouin who had been shot in the foot by Hatteh, the Arab outlaw.
When they approached Murad’s fields, they found nearly twenty women and children pulling weeds in Murad’s field of sugar beets and Murad ran ahead, his arms waving, to chase them out. But though he stood there shouting threats at them, the women serenely ignored him.
“Get out of my field! How many bags are you filling? Get out!” Murad shouted.
“We’re only pulling grass. Not tramping on your sugar.” one of the women retorted. “We are from Shush, Murad. Don’t treat as like Dezfulis.”
“Finish! How much time you stay in my garden? The plants will be broken.”
“If Allah gave rain, we wouldn’t have come to your garden to trouble you.”
*Dezful, the only sizeable town in northern Khuzestan
“Go out, go out! This is not your home.”
“Oh, Murad, you are like a Dezfuli.”
“No, me Arab. Not Dezfuli.”
“C’mon, let’s go. Don’t trouble this Murad. May Allah put a fever in his mouth.”
Only towards evening did the two friends return to the village. The son had already fallen below the Citadel, its last red rays peeping over the turrets and great walls, the stark tower of earth at the Acropole, the great heaps of rubble from so many past civilizations. In the ruined throne room of the palace of Darius, where the workmen had long since laid down their picks and shovels and gone to cook their tea and break their bread, a flock of sheep, the last remaining in Shush and belonging to the custodian of Daniel’s Tomb, were grazing among the fallen stone pillars.
“Remember how many flocks of sheep there were in the old days, Murad?” Karim asked.
“Mostly Bedouins here then. You remember how it was? Only about twenty houses and all made of grass and reeds.”
“Four times the Bedouins from the desert burned ours down. How we ran for the castle!”
“Nobody owned land and a man could go out a make a patch of wheat wherever he wanted. A man was free in those days.”
“There were four or five lions in the jungle by the river.”
“There were many hunters in those days.”
“Those Bedouins came in the daytime. On horseback. Killing and looting. Taking all the rugs and sheep. Four times they burned down our house. I was only a boy then.”
“A long time ago, Karim. Thirty years.”
And how the village has changed, Karim thought. A water plant fifteen years ago. Then electricity. Then the museum five years ago and a year after that the school. And then two years ago they began planting trees and grass and paved the main street and the tourists began coming on Fridays, rich people from as far away as Abadan, even Teheran. Before that they used to keep everybody away from the ruins with soldiers. Searched the workmen every day at quitting time. Now Shush must number seven, eight thousand people, counting, besides the twenty-four farmers, the shop keepers and all the men, maybe five hundred or so, who worked at Haft Tapeh cutting cane. Besides Abjabber’s, there were two more tractors now and even a few cars.
Karim thought for a while, silent as they passed through the crowded bazaar, down an alley and across the riverside terraces with their date palms by Daniel’s Tomb. As they walked along the riverbank Karim pointed out when Hatteh’s men, on horseback and with rifles, had come to pin down the gendarmerie while Hatteh killed his victim in a house just across the Shauer from Karim’s own.
“See that’s where he came, up along the wall along that garden. Can it be only three months ago? Below the bridge you can see the bullet holes.”‘
“What did you do?”
“Hah!” snorted Karim. “Locked my door and lay on the floor with the rest of my family and prayed. The firing went on for an hour.”
Silence again and then, just as they reached their separate paths, Karim spoke.
“I don’t know, Murad, what is better. Before, my father and your father and that Ali’s father, he had land, he had cow, he had sheep. He no go to Haft Tapeh or work for Company. He no working for other man. Because clothes dear, food dear, he must go work now for Haft Tapeh, for Company. My boys, he gotta go work there. Good pay. Two hundred riyals. But prices go up so he most eat maybe a hundred riyals like that Jusuf. So American man he say he give me three hundred riyals. So I go to America. America very dear. Maybe in restaurant I must pay three hundred riyals. No money for my children. So most go home, go back, I am no better off. A man wants more, he gets more, he’s gotta pay more and it seems maybe he’s back where he started.
“Maybe it was always this way. Before in old times, before Darius and Alexander, maybe those people, they have trouble with the land like you and Abjabber and Kalaf Haidar do now. Maybe they had big Company then. Maybe one hundred, two hundred men he come to Elam. Maybe that king, he say, bring me one hundred laborers, bring me two hundred laborers. I pay five, ten thousand riyals. And after those men, they come and make cement, make roof, make all those big houses the French people are digging. All that laborer, he thinks about is ‘How much you pay me?’ And somebody ask that king, ‘What you do for him?’ No put in jail house, but maybe like jail house. Every morning give him washroom and shave, put on road to work, put in fields to work, go home at night, same like jail. He no need to pay that man much, only give him food for eat. Because like that. This man digging, cutting, maybe he watch sheep, he watch horse. After six o’clock, bring in mess hall and take to jail. And maybe after a while that man, he can send some money home to his wife and children.
“I think maybe it was like Haft Tapeh. Haft Tapeh, he pay laborer two-hundred-fifty riyals maybe one day. That man working all the time cutting sugar. Too danger, he cuts foot. If injured, he gets paid. Sure. If no pay, he goes to government. He reports to his King. If a man loses a leg, Haft Tapeh, he must pay for that. Maybe somebody busy in the sugar. He dead in the sugar. Government must pay his family. Maybe that man in Haft Tapeh is like that man in the jailhouse of old, old times, but life is easy, easy. I think it always like that, always the same. A man wants to know, ‘How much you pay me?’ and he gives that money to his wife and children. And he knows that money is coming in.
“Now you, Murad, you are free. You don’t work for nobody. Now you cut your foot nobody pay. I work for you and I cut my foot and go to government and say, ‘Murad, he not pay and I cut my foot working in his field.’ Nobody pay me. Murad works for himself. Murad dead in the garden, who pay his wife and children? Nobody.
“Now the big Company, he want to come to Shush. Maybe no good for you and me, Murad. But better for our boys. They get job so they get electricity, good water, they get schools. Maybe it is like jailhouse but they don’t need to worry about Bedouins coming in and burning down their house. Okay, but they have to buy everything in the shop. Bread, rice, tea, everything. And when they get money, they must stand by a window and some man calls out a number. No good. Before they didn’t have to do that. So what is good?”
Karim felt he was on the edge of something profound and he thought and thought about it over his tea that evening. So that when a neighbor came running from his radio with the news, it seemed almost like an omen or a judgment to Karim that the last of the great Bedouin bandits, the killer of a score of men over the past twenty years, the fear of any traveler in the desert beyond Shush, had been killed by a fellow nomad in an ambush, that Hatteh was dead.
The Temple in the Desert
The radio in the chauffeur driven Mercedes had just began to play “The Age of Aquarius” when the dirt road abruptly climbed steeply out of the narrow gorge, into the sun, and there it was before them.
“My God.” said the man in the back seat. “It looks like a Cecil B. deMille set!”
The girl just stared at it.
When the car was parked they stood together in front of an enormous brick archway at the base. The low, seemingly endless mounds of rubble and debris and the excavated cities of the ruins at Shush at evoked no picture in their minds. But this was different.
“The temple in the desert…. the Tower of Babel,” she said. She spoke with a slight French accent. “Think of it. All those people fighting and quarreling – and then the end of it.”
“Which reminds me….” He was plainly American. “Did you hear there was a red alert in the United States? Somebody in Colorado Springs put the wrong card in the computer.”
“It was on BBC. What did the President do?”
“Consulted his advisers…Wall Street.”
She smiled but her thoughts were on the spectacle before them.
“Oh, yes, the Russians declared the Committee on Human rights illegal.”
Her attention was elsewhere. “All these people quarrelling…different tongues…. They couldn’t understand each other…. I saw ‘Intolerance’ just before I left the city.”
“It was a festival of silent films selected by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Chaplin, Mack Sennett, Lillian Gish….”
“‘Intolerance!’ I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Intolerance to me is the village of Dezful…. My God it’s tremendous. How are we ever going to get to the top?”
“Don’t you have any sense of history at all?”
“No. Oh, Christ. Look at those steps. They’re steep.”
She stood, taking it all in for, some minutes and then frowned, observing for the first time that there were about a hundred Arab laborers scattered over the face of the temple. “Look at those workmen up there. What are they doing?”
“They’re putting up brick walls.”
“That’s right! They’re destroying it!”
“They’re building retaining walls.”
“If they’re putting up retaining walls, then there is no more monument.”
He considered her words and then agreed.
“God.” he groaned, “you mean we have to climb way up there? I’ll have a heart attack. I can’t make it.”
Together they slowly mounted the narrow, high ceremonial stairs, passing under a series of archways of mud-brick. As they advanced they saw the Arab workmen were picking away some of the original structure; some of the bricks they were removing were inscribed with the peculiar scratches of cuneiform.
After some minutes they reached the pinnacle and stopped for breath. They lit up Gauloises and she began telling him about the film she had seen.
“I think it was Darius who invaded Babylon…. but I can’t remember the name of the king. It was based on four parallel stories. One was a modern story about a town in the West. I’m not sure. The second was in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.”
“Jesus? I left my sandals at home.”
“What had Jesus to do with sandals? I’ve always seen him barefoot.”
She smoked for some minutes before resuming her story. “The third part was in France during the religious wars. And the fourth – was in Babylon? I’m not quite sure. It was Babylon, I think.”
“D. W. Griffith glorified the Ku Klux Klan.”
“In ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ You should read Ramparts. So you liked ‘Intolerance?'”
“I told all the people I knew to go and see it. And the next day I went back.”
“You saw it twice? Who was in it? Wait, don;t tell me. Let me guess.”
“All right. Guess.”
“Mary Miles Minter? Clara Kimball Young? Billy Dove? Nita Naldi? Carmel Myers? Delores Costello? Vilma Banky? Constance Talmadge? Andher sister, Norma…. Talmadge. Those are just a few of my loves when I was very young and used to go to the SS, meaning Silent Screen…. Hey! What was it all about?”
“I think it was in the West. A small town. The women there, well, let’s say the high society, decided the mentality of the people should be changed. They close the club where the workers go. Where the workers dance.”
“And drink and….”
“Yes, if you like. They went to start welfare for the workers. But to get money they want to tax the people. The workers don’t like it and they have a strike. A few are killed. I think they had some barricades.”
“Off the pigs! Aux murs!
“Afterward some of the people, some of the workers, I mean, are dismissed and they have to go to the next town. Among the people going to this town, there’s a girl who’s been left alone and in town she quickly becomes a prostitute. She becomes recruited by the Musketeers. It is a kind of gang. I think the gang is called the Musketeers.”
“It would be an armed gang then. Musket is an old English word for rifle. Rifle. I’m very cultive. I surprised you.”
“…doesn’t find any work and he becomes a member of the gang. Another girl, her father dies….”
“…and she becomes a prostitute. We’re building up quite a whorehouse.”
“I said she doesn’t,” She pouted for a moment. “You finish it.”
“And then a Negro comes to town and he has a lot of money.”
“There’s not a Negro in that film.”
“Of course not, D. W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation…. No sex either?”
“The picture will never last, It will never go…….Why did you see it two times?”
“Because it was fabulous.”
“The way it was done. The techniques of the film as well as the stories which were so real, so modern.”
He started to sing:
“J’aime a flaner dans les grande boulevards.”
“Sur,” she said.
“J’aime a flaner sur les grande boulevards.”
A group of laughing, chattering Persian schoolgirls were ascending the temple and when they reached the pinnacle and saw the American there, they crowded around him, wanting to practice their English. Amidst the chorus of “Hello! Good morning. What is your name?” the girl slipped away chuckling to herself. He glimpsed her hurrying away, almost scampering along the edge of the uppermost terrace. It was a very sheer drop but before he had time to call out she had disappeared behind a turret. When the schoolgirls had been herded below once more by their teacher, he was all alone; his companion was no longer in sight. He turned toward the east where the late afternoon sun was sinking slowly toward the far white distance of the Mesopotamian Plain. From some nearby village he could hear a muezzin’s call, summoning the faithful to prayer. The grassless, perfectly flat desert looked salty, poisonous and altogether dismal. Then he heard the sound of a flute, notes of the most shameless sweetness, an almost primordial sound, he had never heard such music before and he searched the dunes to the south to see where it was coming from. Like the desert the dunes presented a monochrome landscape of pink and yellow-ochre, but here and there the valleys between the mounds of sand and earth were brushed with a faint lime-green, as if with the promise of a grassy pastureland. In one of these valleys he saw a scattered flock of sheep and on the peak of a dune above them a lone shepherd was sitting; perhaps it was he who was playing the flute.
He considered a suitable phrase: “the paths of righteousness,” “thy rod and thy staff,” “he maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Far, far in the misty white distance a dusty wolf – or was it a jackal or hyena? – trotted over the wasteland. An eagle circled, watching him. The valley of the shadow. He shuddered involuntarily despite the warmth of the sunshine and thought to himself that in a few months he would be sixty and yet how ignorant he was of all this. And for once he could think of nothing very original to say.
“This is it.” he said out loud. “This was where it all began.”
Suddenly below him, where Arabs were working on the grand ceremonial staircase, there was a loud commotion. Arabs, their heads tied with white rags and armed with sticks and stones, were crowding around one of the workers and shouting excitedly in their strange gutteral tongue, calling to one another. “Karim! Sharif! Abed!” Him peered over the precipice, looking almost straight down on the scene of confusion and saw one of the Arabs was beating a live serpent with a brick. It was a viper, with its head held high and its deadly fangs gleaming in the son for a moment before it slithered into the masonry.
He shouted to the girl, “Venez vite! Un serpent! Regardez!”
She appeared in a moment, breathless from climbing, and together they watched as the Arabs beat the creature to death. But the tail still curled back and forth.
“Il bouge,” she gasped and then one of the men struck what most have been the fatal blow, gingerly picking the serpent up from the bricks and flinging it off into the sky.
In the car, driving back to town through mile after mile of sugar cane, they had a small disagreement. She had wanted to descend to the temple catacombs but he had run out of cigarettes and felt in need of a drink.
“We should have gone down.” she said.
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Because, for Godssake, there might be wolves down there. Maybe a hyena’s lair. Scorpions. It smelled terrible.”
In the end they compromised and agreed to stop just beyond the sugar factory at Haft Tapeh to view the newly excavated tomb of an Elamite king, the first of the seven tapehs in the area to be dug. It was almost twilight when they reached it and there were no other visitors. Only a lone Bedouin watchman greeted him; the girl thought he was very handsome with a slightly aquiline nose, high cheekbones and a downy moustache over fleshy lips. The man, with a nod but no smile, beckoned to them to follow him. He led them to a canvas-covered enclosure adjacent to the arched brick tomb where work was still underway, as picks and shovels lay about.
He lifted the canvas and the man and the girl peered inside. There, in the silence and gloom of the ebbing day, they could just see twenty-three human skeletons lying in the bottom of a deep, rock-lined crypt, so close to one another they seemed to have died in a communal embrace, with arms and legs entangled and some of the chalky, crumbling skulls so close together they might have come to rest check to cheek.
The American saw them. He felt a curious, awakening sensation much as he had felt earlier on the heights of the temple. True, what he felt was no more then a natural shock at the sight of so many skeletons in so eerie a setting, yet it came upon him with such suddenness as to resemble a seizure, almost a hallucination. His astonishment projected itself visually; his fancy, not quite yet dulled since mid-afternoon, imagined the marvels and terrors these once-humans had known. He beheld a landscape, a tropical marshland of swamps, sluggish rivers and alluvial channels. Date palms rose near and far out of lush clumps of reeds and bulrushes, out of the depths of slimy vegetation. There were lotus trees, misshapen as if in a dream, bamboo thickets where the eyes of crouching lions gleamed, vivid orchards with glassy-green fruit, wild asses, jackals, fleet-footed ostriches and gazelles and howling, foaming hyenas. There was the ramble of chariot wheels over pebbled surfaces, the whiplash on the sweat-shiny shoulders of slaves and prisoners-of-war. He heart a rattling, a crashing, a low doll thunder; cymbals clashed, ram’s horns blared, pipes shrilled, lyres twanged, drams rolled and through all these, dominating them all, flute-notes of the same shameless sweetness, the same flute-notes of the shepherd he had heard at the temple. In the clamor, girls in transparent white cotton gowns, uttering shrieks with heads flung back and tambourines high in the air; naked, shaven headed priests thumping madly on drums and bearing high the god of moon and storm; youths girt with hides clasping the horns of sacrificial rams; panting, steaming bodies, dancing joyously about the god head, driving each other on with laughs, cries of life…..And then the vision vanished and he was back with the girl and the Arab standing by the grisly grave in the murky, misty onset of the Mesopotamian night. His eyes rose to the sky, searching for reassurance, but the stars, looking down as they had for thousands of years, and the incomprehensible sky itself and the mist and the silent Arab seemed unconcerned with one man’s short life.
And for the first time the thought came into his mind of the loneliness that awaits one in the grave, an intolerable loneliness that seemed to overwhelm, him, his heart throbbing with terror until the girl spoke.
“How sad, how sad they seem,” she said with compassion. “‘For dust thou art, to dust thou salt returned.'”
It took him a minute to answer.
“‘Nell, you know what I say? Fuck ’em. The same thing’s going to happen to me.”
For assistance during this study I wish to express gratitude to the many helpful officials of the Foreign, Information, Water and Power and Land Reform ministries of the Imperial Government of Iran and those of the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority and Development and Resources Corporation; to the staffs, both Iranian and American, of the H.N. Agro-Industrial Company and Iran California Company; to my various interpreters: Husein Parvini, Rafat and Sharif Fawzli; to my host in Shush-Daniel, Karim Kurd and his sons, Abde and Mohammed Reza; to Professor Jean Perrot and the French Archeological Mission in Iran and especially to its only American member, Miss Elizabeth Carter of the University of Chicago; and most of all to my friends, Eugene H. King of the Broadcasting Foundation of America and Mademoiselle Odile Puech of Teheran University, who were in Khuzestan as UNESCO consultants and were not only helpful and congenial companions but provided the characters in the closing sketch. If I’d done a bibliography, The Rise of the West by W. H. McNeill of the University of Chicago, would have led it. Indeed, it suggested the site of Shush for this study. Along with Iran by Professor R. Ghirshman, the former head of the French Archeological Mission in Iran, it proved indispensable, as did the article earlier quoted by George M. Adams of the University of Chicago. There are a great many books on Elam and Sumer but these especially emphasized the importance of agriculture. Last, I am very thankful to the Gideons for leaving a copy of the Bible in a bureau drawer of the Teheran Hilton, without which I would have been lost.
The conclusion should not be drawn that the sketch, “Fellahin,” is intended as a criticism of the agribusiness approach to agricultural development or as a plea such investment should be paid the small farmer instead. Any foreigner with capital for farming and an eye to export markets is being welcomed with open arms into Iran – and quite rightly, so long as Iran’s own farmers also get their fair crack of the whip. The point the sketch hoped to raise is whether in any age or any region there can be an agricultural transformation without some degree of inhumanity and injustice. The Shah’s belief appears to be that only agribusiness can transform Khuzestan rapidly back to its fertility of Sassanian or Elamite times as well as bring the region into the modern age. I agree since Khuzestan is not Punjab it does not have a large, homogeneous traditional farming population which could carry out the modernization of agriculture as is happening in West Pakistan and Northwest India.
Moreover, the success of the agribusinesses in Khuzestan – the idea of bringing in modern, big-scale irrigation farming as practiced in California for a decade or two to revolutionize local culture and agricultural practices – is extremely important in light of the hope of the Nixon administration and others to substitute private capital to some degree for bilateral, government-to-government, foreign aid. President Nixon has established the OIPC as a new agency to attract private business investment abroad by providing insurance guarantees (for which the terms are not all that attractive; Iran California Company subscribes to only 40 per cent of the allowable insurance.) But what is going on in Khuzestan today is probably the biggest experiment to see if this substitution will work. It is also an experiment to try and find some way to practice the economies of scale required by the most modern and efficient irrigation agriculture without ending up with the kind of great estates that say, in Prussia, helped bring on the Second World War and the growth of Fascism and Communism in Germany. So, a lot is riding on what happens in Khuzestan.
For this reason, one must voice criticism of some of the policies of the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority has opposed to the excellent policies of the Shah and his Ministry of Water and Power at the national level.
For instance, take the price the Khuzestan Water and Power Authority (KWPA) was giving dispossessed farmers for their land. When I was living in Shush, a local farmer whose fields were just on the edge of the village, sold three and a half hectares for 900,000 riyals or about $3,420 a hectare or around $1050 an acre (a. hectare equals 2.2 acres). Although this land was going to be developed as commercial and residential property and commanded a considerably higher price than outlying farmland, $1,550 an acre was in line with the going price of farmland in the Punjab of about $1,800 an acre.
In late February, the Teheran press published reports that the government had purchased 12,000 acres at Safiabad for leasing to the agribusinesses for a total price of 260,000,000 riyals, which comes out to about 21,700 a hectare, or about $289 a hectare. Considering that some of this land was virtually desert, even this does not seem too unreasonable, except, as best as I could determine, out of this 60 per cent given right back to the government in the form of taxes.
Moreover, most of the farmers in the area when they had to sell their land to the government were heavily in debt to KWPA, for water and fertilizer provided in the initially unsuccessful effort to modernize the agriculture of Khuzestan through help, as in the Punjab, to traditional farmers.
A previously quoted article from the November 1970 issue of Fortune magazine, entitled, “Oil and Water Rebuild an Ancient Land,” reported: “Now the Shah intends to make Khuzestan bloom once again as it did twenty-five hundred years ago, in the time of Darius the Great when Khuzestan was the breadbasket of the ancient Persian Empire. Oil and gas will pay the bills…. As irrigation creeps across the Khuzestan Plain, vast brown areas will slowly turn green, soil will be stabilized and dust storms will decline in both frequency and ferocity… For centuries a sun-blistered desert, Khuzestan is becoming a productive land again…. “The article is historically incorrect as there was very little agriculture under the Achaemenians in Khuzestan but its real renaissance followed 500 years later under the Sassanians. But the point is that one gets an impression the agribusinesses are going into a deserted wasteland where nobody was living or farming. This impression was stated explicitly in an otherwise superb study of Iran in the October 31, 1970, Economist, titled “Another Persia.” which reported, “Iran therefore says that the next logical step is to create jobs by encouraging agribusiness on a Californian scale on land not previously farmed at all….”
On the contrary there were some 173,888 people living in the area of Shush, Andimeshk and Dezful, the three towns covered by the project area, around 40,000 of them farm families living on the 50,000 acres of the pilot irrigation project area initiated in 1963 and brought into actual land leveling and farming the past two years by Naraghi and the Iran California Company. These people were living in 58 villages and while certain stretches of land were set aside for “improved traditional farming.” most of the villages were to be bulldozed away. The American officers of the new companies estimate about 15,000 people have so far been directly affected.
To replace villages swept aside to make way for the huge, scientifically leveled and irrigated fields the companies have been creating, the KWPA is constructing three villages of 800 living units each or one for each company. At present 500 such units were built at the village of Sasan, 200 at Kavoos and 100 at Khosrow and plans call for 332 more to be built in the next six months and 100 more after that. Each village will have its schools, a clinic, bazaar, mosque, public baths and sports stadium. Each living unit has a foundation of 40 square meters with a kitchen, living room, small storage closet and an outdoor lavatory shared with another unit. The houses are small and would appear to make no allowance for their inhabitants raising the chickens, cows and sheep with which the salaried farm laborers in Khuzestan have from time immemorial supplemented cash, incomes. One irrigator, asked what his children would do for milk in the new village, looked at the sky and said, “I suppose rain.”
The unhappiness over the new villages is evident, not only among the peasants moving into them or those who could not raise the required’ 40,000 riyals to buy one and hence get no new job either, but among the higher officials of the agribusinesses themselves. Wilson, the head of Iran California Company, said they probably looked fine to the Shah if he drove by but he wouldn’t probably realize they were designed not for one family, but four. Indeed, Wilson feels the village on his company’s land is so inadequate he is considering building his own housing for his workers. “My original idea.” he told me, “was that we would pick out about four of the eleven existing villages on our land and dig wells, install electricity and maintain all the village’s needs. Give them 100 hectares to raise their own cattle and sheep.”
Wilson, more than anyone else I talked with in Khuzestan, seemed, acutely sensitive toward the social injustices the local people were suffering. “These people lived for centuries without being troubled,” he said. “Maybe their farming was very backward, but they could raise rice and wheat. Then the new dam and canals came along, the KWPA wanted to level their land and all, and they had to pay for it. All the villagers got progressively in debt as Khuzestan was modernized. So badly in debt that when KWPA came to buy their lands, the net gain of the villager was almost nothing.”
Moreover, the idea that a switch from traditional farming to modern large scale agribusinesses would provide more jobs has turned out to be completely erroneous. “Modern agriculture simply can’t absorb as many people as were living here,” Keith Nelson, one of Wilson’s staff told me. “We’re going to need even less people in the future than we have now. Now we’ve got 39 irrigators. When all the canals are finished, we can get by with four or five.”
Why, with so many problems, have agribusinesses at all? The answer is the one it has always been, right from the days of the Elamites: the pressure of population. With Iran’s population now at 30 million, its growth rate rising from 3 to 3.5 per cent and the prospect of 50 or 60 million people in the next 10 to 15 years, the modernization of agriculture, willy nilly, becomes the overriding priority. And fortunately oil is providing enough revenue to build the dams and canals and roads and chemical fertilizer plants to do it, with the American farmers and American-trained Iranian farmers (all from California) providing the skill to do it. Ecologists like Dr. Barry Commoner complain that the agricultural wealth of California’s irrigated desert valleys has been gained at the cost of polluting the state’s underground water reserves with nitrate, from the massive doses of nitrogen fertilizer applied. He claims excessive nitrogen has even shown up in the rainfall of the California valleys, the Midwest Corn Belt and in Texas. He could probably add the Punjab, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and dozens of other countries where the transformation of agriculture is in full swing. The problem is that national governments must make feeding their burgeoning living populations their first priority without worrying too much about what happens to the future ones, with fingers crossed that science can come up with some remedy in time. Disaster in the distant future is always preferable to disaster right down the street, here and now. One gets similarly irked about the widely voiced fears of Dr. Paul Erlich of Stanford, perhaps the most outspoken critic of the green revolution. C’mon to a village in Khuzestan or Punjab or Java, Dr, Erlich, and stay for awhile and see if what happens in the year 2,000 seems all that important when you, start getting hungry, and I mean gnawingly hungry, about four in the afternoon with nothing to look forward to but a little unleavened bread or rice in the evening. Obviously, it would be a dreadful thing if over-fertilization of the land imperiled the environment of future generations. But the way things are going, the great crunch from overpopulation, in all its cultural and political manifestations, in India, China and Indonesia and a few other places, is going to come long before we have to worry much about nitrate.
Finally, to give readers some idea about the tremendous technological jump being made in Khuzestan, I would like to briefly compare the farming practices of Murad and the Iran California Company. (Abjabber is a much better farmer than Murad, but out of the 24 agriculturalists in Shush, or indeed in all the northern plain for that matter, Murad is much more typical.)
As mentioned earlier, Murad’s grandfather was a nomadic sheep-raiser in Luristan, the hill country of the Zagros Mountains. His father, retracing the steps of man 8,500 years ago, had come down to the plain and settled about a mile north of Shush for mixed-farming, with sheep, cattle and wheat cultivation. In 1935, harassed by Bedouin bandit tribes and such wild animals as boars, hyenas and lions, Murad’s father had moved to Shush. At that time Murad was 15 years old and the only other farmer in Shush was his future father-in-law. The rest of the Shush population of some 200 people raised sheep or ran small shops around the tomb of Daniel. Karim recalled people did go out on the desert and, gambling on enough rainfall, grew small plots of wheat, but did not irrigate as Murad’s father and father-in-law did.
In 1961, at the time the Shah of Iran, His Imperial Majesty Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, had consolidated his position enough to defy the country’s entrenched landlords, Shush had four of them, Khalaf Haidar and three other Arab sheikhs. The land in Shush was divided among the 24 men who actually tilled it, although there was some confusion with some of the tillers never getting documentation and still paying rent to the former owners. Murad gained title to 3.5 hectares but more or less occupied 6.5 more so that his farm covered 10 hectares. (Shush, readers should be reminded, is bordered on the west by a jungle, and the Karkheh River beyond which, beginning only a mile from the village, lies a desert as wild as the Sahara. In other words, it stands at the edge of what is a largely settled farming area to the northeast and a no man’s land.)
The source of water for Murad’s farm was a canal from the source of the Shauer River, which emerged from the ground in a swamp three miles to the north and flowed through the village of Shush itself. This canal had been breached during a rainstorm in the fall of 1970 and at the time of our story Murad and Abjabber and their neighbors were getting water from a nearby village which had an abundant supply from its own canal, fed by the Dez River to the east. This was on a catch-as-catch-can basis but the assured supply from the Shauer required the work of 100 men for about a week to replace the stakes and mud dam (similar to that made by a beaver) which had been broken. It seemed significant that none of the farmers who used this water could agree on a time when, by their mutual cooperation, the work could be done. The government, rightly, took the position that repairing the dam was up to the users of the water.
In early 1971, Murad was in debt to the tone of 50,000 riyals, borrowed from half a dozen different banks. When a loan of 5,000 riyals or so came due at one bank, he would borrow from another to pay it back, a system that had worked for years and allowed him to more or less break even.
There were two seasons in Shush, a winter one from November through March and a summer one that ran until about August. After that the land was too dry until the rains came again.
During the winter Murad planted one hectare of sugar beets, a newly introduced crop, for which he received 850 riyals per ton and usually produced 20 tons per hectare. During the harvest he employed five women for cutting at 40 riyals per day each for 10 days and five men for collecting and loading at 80 riyals per man for 10 days. In December he planted two hectares of beans, which, after a four month growing season, he sold to a merchant from the provincial capital of Ahwaz for a lump sum, usually after much bargaining, for around 20,000 riyals. He also put in two hectares of wheat and a half hectare of onions.
During the winter, Murad left half his farm, or 4.5 hectares, fallow. When he planted this in the early spring, he left his bean, sugar, onion and wheat fields go fallow, not farming them until the following November. His summer crops included water melon, grown twice in 40-day cycles on two hectares; cucumbers, grown twice in 40-day cycles on one hectare and chick peas, for two months on 1.5 hectares.
With the exception of sugar beans, all of Murad’s crops – beans, wheat, onions, cucumbers, water melon and chick peas – had been grown in Shush 8,000 years before in Elamite times, as was evidenced when, bits of all were found in the excavation of an old settlement at Ja’afar Abad, about two miles north of Shush, while I was there. (The French archeologists, indeed, gave me some kernels of charred 8,000-yearold wheat they had uncovered in a hearth, presumably preserved when the ceiling of a house fell in during an earthquake or perhaps attack.)
In payment for his crops, Murad received 5 riyals a kilo for wheat (considerably lower than that received in the Punjab, where farmers got around $9 a quintal (100 kilos) as compared to Murad’s $6.50; 2 riyals a kilo for onions; 2 riyals a kilo for water melon until the price gradually fell to 1 riyal; cucumbers, 1 riyal apiece; 5 riyals per kilo of chick peas until the price dropped to 3 riyals. Murad could grow cotton but did not as “nobody buys it here.”
Murad sold all his wheat, buying bread in the bazaar every day for a total monthly food bill for himself, his wife, and two unmarried children of 3,000 to 4,000 riyals a month. He had moved into town so as to have a good water supply and electricity and because he feared marauding Bedouins at night. Unlike the farmers of our previous studies in Punjab and Java, whose diet was virtually vegetarian. Murad ate meat, usually chicken or mutton, every day. He rented his small house beside Daniel’s Tomb and the public bathhouse and owned two bicycles, a transistor radio and an expensive combination radio phonograph. Unlike most of the inhabitants of Shush who slept and sat on floor carpets (as did, alas, the family I lived with) Murad used chairs and tables and he and his family slept on beds. Since the present Shah of Iran’s father had made Western clothing mandatory in the 1930s, Murad had worn a suit coat to the fields. Apparently as status symbols, he also wore black leather shoes and stockings and a black raincoat; Abjabber was one of the few Shush farmers who dressed for field work in sandals and loose cotton clothing.
Murad, a few years before, had sold one hectare of land for 350,000 riyals before taxes, which appeared to account for his relatively high standard of living. Because of this he estimated the value of land around Shush as 32 to 35 riyals per square meter or around $1,800 an acre.
Since fertilizer had become readily available in the Shush bazaar in the 1950s, Murad had become a strong believer in it and applied every year 600 kilos to his sugar field, 250 for wheat, 300 for beans, 100 for onions, 300 for watermelon, 300 for cucumber and 300 for peas. He purchased Urea in Shush for $5 for a 50-kilo bag. Murad also bought six wagonloads of sheep manure each year from the Bedouins, at a cost of 500 riyals per wagonload.
Until 1960 Murad had plowed his fields himself using a pair of oxen, donkeys or even horses, a backbreaking job since the plows in use in Khuzestan, because the earth is so hard, require the farmer, to bend over and bring all his weight on the handles as the animals pull it forward. Except where tractors are in use – perhaps on two-thirds of the farms today – the wooden steel-bladed plow one sees is the same one used in Khuzestan 5,000 to 6,000 years ago. Of the two of Shush’s tractors that hire out – the other is Abjabber’s – Murad hires one for plowing at the rate of 150 riyals an hour. The owner of the tractor supplies a driver and fuel.
There is only one tube well in Shush, installed 15 years ago (in Punjab the tube well was introduced 18 years ago) by a rich vegetable merchant who grows his own produce on seven hectares in the southwest corner of the village. It is ran by a diesel engine since, unlike in Punjab, electricity is more expensive in Khozestan than oil from Iran’s own vast fields. A 5 gallon tin of diesel fuel costs only 5 riyals.
Very little of the new dwarf wheat was being grown in Shush. Abjabber had tried it but had kept no seed; he preferred instead to buy new varieties of seed each year although he complained it was expensive. Murad had never tried the new varieties, explaining that one kilo cost 40 riyals and since two hectares required 80 kilos the overall cost of 3,200 riyals for seeds was prohibitive.
The last Persian wheel, where water is lifted out of a well in tins with power provided by slowly circling camels, disappeared from Shush 50 years ago, when there had been two. I saw a few in operation near the town of Dezful, the biggest population center in the area about 25 miles northeast of Shush. It is interesting to note that the last important animal to be domesticated, the camel, who began to be used by farmers around 1,000 B.C., has been the first to vanish from the scene. While donkeys are common in Khuzestan, and horses almost a common means of transportation, especially for the Bedouins, camels have almost become a rarity.
Murad has no permanent laborer or sharecropper. If he had he would pay him around 36,000 riyals a year for a married man, saying that for a single man “whatever we give him he’s satisfied.” In terms of daily wages, most laborers get 70 to 80 riyals; cane cutters working Piecemeal at the sugar plantation of Haft Tapeh could make up to 300 to 350 riyals a day for very strenuous work; masons building a nearby canal were getting 300 riyals a day and their foreman, 600 riyals. The highest paid skilled laborer I ran across was a welder receiving $400 a month whose American employers described as the best welder they had ever seen anyplace.
Murad’s major expense in recent years had been the 30,000 riyal dowry he paid when his oldest daughter was married, when he had to buy her a rug, blankets, dishes, spoons, forks, glasses, clothes, ring, bicycle, sewing, machine and a suit of clothes for the groom. Murad is a Lur tribal from Luristan as is his son-in-law; had his daughter married an Arab and Murad been an Arab, all the expenses would have been borne by the groom and his father.
As a practicing Moslem, Murad does not drink, but it is not all that uncommon in Shush; although more clandestine than in the Punjab. A bottle of whiskey sold for 600 riyals in Shush; the Arab population usually ate oranges to disguise their breath before going home after drinking. But in the town of Andimeshk, 20 miles to the north, there were six taverns right on the main street, and, indeed, heavy drinking and drugs as well as almost daily street brawls were something of a problem. Shush, however, was very quiet as befitted a center of Moslem orthodoxy as the site of Daniel’s Tomb.
The most startling visual difference between the traditional farming areas of Khuzestan and the newly developed lands of the agribusinesses is that the landscapes of the company farms are almost empty of people. Occasionally one sees a few men on tractors, a few irrigators or the drivers of the big land leveling scrapers who remind one vividly on a passage of Steinbeck: “The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was part of the monster, a robot in the seat.”
Neither does the company’s “barnyard” look much like this ex-Iowa farm boy would have expected, but rather like the battalion headquarters of some army engineering outfit in a remote part of the earth. Great heaps of scrap metal, a workshop, gas station, mechanics, metal shop, a deafening roar of machines, and a yard full of John Deere tractors (Naraghi has 17 of them), combines, spring-tooth harrows, spike-tooth harrows, cabers to make compressed alfalfa, swatchers, wind rowers, balers, rakes, seeders, cultivators, plows, grain drillers, discs, trucks, jeeps, motorcycles.
Like the military, the workers make up a highly specialized hierarchy: supervisors, drafters, surveyors, managers, accountants, security forces, weeders, trimmers, sprayers, field workers, ditch maintenance teams, irrigators, farm machinery operators, field maintenance crews, tractor-cat drivers, mechanics, welders, electricians, a highly complex social differentiation perhaps not even dreamt of by the Elamite temple communities with their priests, overseers and serfs.
The most spectacular technological innovation is the land leveling operation, which proceeds even at night with oil lights that look rather like old English street lanterns. First, an engineering team and surveyors draw up typographical maps, then stake out vast fields into grids about 100-feet square. Stakes are driven in and marked with white paper in either green or red lettering, for cut or fill. Then, with a man standing by to shout directions, the huge scrapers get to work, roaring back and forth, in great clouds of dust, engines screaming and thundering like jets. Watching, you again remember Steinbeck’s driver who “could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat in an iron seat and stepped on iron petals….” It is an awesome, rather frightening thing to watch, the ancient earth being reshaped in this fashion, especially when you listen, above the roar of the machines, the voice of a competent young American technician telling you, “By controlling the water we can get a uniform level of moisture in the soil. It gives us scientific control. Pre-irrigating through ripping can put a lot of water in the soil and keep it there in storage. We can shoot the water in real fast when it’s planted to germinate the plants and keep the weeds out. If we know how fast the soil takes water and how much water the soil requires, we can almost calculate how much water to put on in irrigation. It does get pretty well mechanized and systematized for the entire production of the crop.”
It seems a long way from Murad’s planning to water the bean crop extra heavy on the edges because the city buyer seldom leaves the road. Or perhaps not so far. Later that same technician sat in his track signing the payroll and when he came to the weeders and saw they were only down for 50 riyals a day, exclaimed, “Fifty riyals! Not much. Well, it’s probably more than they ever saw in their lives.” (I felt like telling him, but did not, that it was less than the standard daily wage of 70 to 80 riyals in Shush.) But somehow that old human element can’t be eliminated entirely.
Indeed, although the companies want to establish modern personnel practices, old Eastern corruption keeps slipping in. At both Haft Tapeh end Iran California, personnel staffs have been discovered shaking down job applicants for three or four thousand riyals “baksheesh” if they want to get hired.
Iran California is planting bursheem clover, not grown before in Khuzestan although it is common in the Punjab. But unlike Punjab where it is cut by sickle and ran through a fodder cutter each day to carry back to the cattle in the barn, Iran California brings herds of cows and sheep to graze right in the field, a sensible labor-saving approach; one wonders why it does not spread to Punjab.
Irrigation is also extremely modern; no more walking up the dikes with a, shovel and opening and closing channels by hand. Iran California is installing hundreds of galvanized steel irrigation slides which, fit into concrete frames, make field irrigation as easy as turning on a faucet. Some of the more complicated ones even release water in pipes with slide gates, all of them made in the company’s own metal shop.
(Bringing so much metal into the field made me curious what Archeologists, say, a thousand years from now might find. Professor Jean Perrot, head of the French mission in Shush, said the steel would disappear but our imagined archeologists might find such aluminum parts as fly wheels, pistons for small engines and some tillage tools lying around. But, he added, most modern machinery would vanish in enough centuries. “In a, thousand years, very little would be found of New York. In contrast, potsherds are virtually indestructible.”)
Iran California’s cultivation of sugar beets goes far beyond the headaches of Murad or Abjabber to keep out the Bedouins trying to cut grass for their flocks. Once the land is leveled and herbicides are applied, sugar beets will be thinned electronically. Iran California plants its beets 40 to 60 centimeters between rows and, within rows, 25 to 30 centimeters apart. Neither Murad nor Abjabber thinned their sugar beets at all. In wheat, only a dwarf Mexican variety, INA 66, is grown.
Sometimes nature fights back. Although birds are moderate and crows unknown around Shush, great flocks of crows and sparrows have descended on the agribusinesses, eating so many seeds Iran California lost its entire first corn crop. Naraghi has resorted to hiring four little boys with sling shots for forty riyals apiece a day until modern science comes up with some answers. And Arab workmen violently objected when Iran California wanted to bulldoze away a lotus tree in the middle of one field. One of them offered to pay 5,000 riyals to the company to spare the tree. When the bulldozer, going ahead anyway, had a flat tire, the Arabs told Iran California’s officials it served them right and the tree was spared.
In the end, the agribusiness concept will probably work. As Keith Nelson of Iran California put it, “Our hope is that the kids who are now learning to be our tractor drivers, our mechanics and our irrigators and field workers will eventually own this land again. The local people who are growing up with us and getting the training.” This will probably be true. The basic idea is development, to modernize agriculture and bring Khuzestan back to where it was in the days of the Elamites and Sassanians.
But before this happens, someone will have to redress the grievance expressed – and it is representative – of one Arab tractor driver, who told me, “The Company, he lie. He tell Shah he give good house, good money to those people if he take their house, their land. What he give? Nothing.”
In Khuzestan, as history repeats itself, the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage. RC
Shush-Daniel, Andimeshk, Teheran March 12, 1971
Received in New York March 22, 1971
©1971 Richard Critchfield
Mr. Richard Critchfield is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Washington Evening Star, Washington, D.C. This article may be published with credit to Mrs. Critchfield, the Washington Star and the Alicia Patterson Fund.