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In Iran, what you see is often not what you get

Iran's leader vs. the Great Satan? Qajar tilework on the fortress of Karim Khan Zand in Shiraz

Eternal conflict? An earlier Iranian leader struggling against a legendary enemy, portrayed on 19th century Qajar tilework on the fortress of Karim Khan Zand in Shiraz (photo: HP)

As the U.S. and Iran seemingly get serious once again about trying to settle their differences, here’s a piece I wrote in 2001 about not taking it all too seriously. In Iran, after all, politeness can decree that person from whom you have asked directions is most likely aiming to point you in the direction he or she thinks you already want to go. And a skill in reading metaphysical poetry is probably as useful in understanding the rhetoric in meaning as any latter-day Kremlinology  about reformists and conservatives in the leadership of the 1979 revolution. My reporting in Shiraz formed the basis of a long chapter about Iran in my book Dining with al-Qaedabut this story from the Wall Street Journal in 2000 gives a brief idea.



21 February 2001

International — Reporter’s Journal:

Will the Real Tehran Please Stand Up?

Before Rapprochement,

U.S. Must Figure Out

Who It’s Dealing With


By Hugh Pope

The Wall Street Journal

  I veil my words in curtains, friends

  Let balladeers tease out their ends

— Hafez, 14th-century Persian poet

SHIRAZ, Iran — The U.S. State Department says it’s ready for talks on renewing diplomatic relations with Iran anywhere, anytime. Little wonder: While Iran is no longer necessary as a bulwark against the Soviet Union, a friendlier Iran could help U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, secure Persian Gulf oil supplies and promote Middle East peace.

But what does Iran want? Nobody seems to know, least of all the Iranians themselves. Although chants of “Death to America” and “Wipe out Israel” are still central to Friday prayer meetings all over the country, some Iranians insist Americans shouldn’t take this too literally.

“It’s just a war of words,” says Ayatollah Mohieddin Haeri Shirazi, the bright-eyed leader of Friday prayers in this southern city, sitting behind a knee-high desk in a large, white room where guests sit on cushions around the walls. “How many Americans did we kill? None. We are not your enemy. We are your friend. Your trouble is that you cannot distinguish between the two.”

What you see in Iran is never quite what you get. Straight talk is considered vulgar, almost rude. Shia Muslim clergymen debate the mantuq and the mafhum, or what is said and what should be understood. Persian poets revel in verses about wine and lovers, meaning religious ecstasy and God. Iranian business lawyers delight in conjuring up free-trade zones, which emasculate strict constitutional restrictions on foreign investment.

A quarter-century ago, this same Iran was the U.S. strategic kingpin in the Middle East, not to mention a huge market for American armaments and other products. The U.S. broke ties after revolutionary students took American diplomats hostage in 1979, holding them for 444 days (which makes restoring full relations a hard sell in Congress, too.)

Today, mainstream conservative and reformist factions of Iran’s ruling elite — which includes hostage-taking students from two decades ago — both quietly favor restoring ties. Rhetorical condemnation of the “Great Satan” and U.S. flag-trampling ceremonies have subsided. But both sides want to take credit for a move that has broad public support, so both try to sabotage the efforts of the other. (Last year, for instance, hard-liners seized on a Berlin meeting of Germans and Iranians on the future of Iranian political reforms to jail pro-reformers who attended.)

If America wants to reopen its embassy — now a high school for Iranian revolutionary guards, its brick walls painted with fading slogans and a Statue of Liberty with a spooky skull — U.S. diplomats must pick their way through a maze of similar mind-games.

“There’s no one person running foreign policy, no fixed doctrine,” says Mohammad Haidari, 56, an independent magazine editor in Tehran. Though he, too, favors restoring relations, his face lights up when he remembers the pre-revolutionary day he and a friend “beat the living daylights” out of two American soldiers for manhandling an Iranian woman in the street.

Currently, contacts between the U.S. and Iran have stalled on talks about exchanging diplomats and lifting the latest round of U.S. trade and investment sanctions slapped on Iran in 1995. The U.S. says it must be able to discuss allegations of Iran’s links to terrorism and supposed attempts to build weapons of mass destruction. Iran finds this offensive. It notes that neighboring Pakistan has relations with the U.S. even though it has tested a nuclear bomb, has a military regime, is cosy with the even more fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan and harbors Islamist insurgents operating against India in Kashmir. And it was American-backed Iraq that used chemical weapons that injured 60,000 Iranians in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, not the other way round.

For all the rhetoric, Iranian respect for American things has survived surprisingly intact, partly because four million Iranians now live in the West. American models are evident in everything from wide kitchen cookers to military organization. Tehran’s urban development has adopted U.S.-style expressways. “The relationship is love and hate; there is nothing in between,” says Rocky Ansari, managing partner of Tehran legal advisers Cyrus Omron International.

Attracted by spreading Internet access, Iranian youth crave exposure to America and American things. But would they pay for the privilege once a new U.S. Embassy joins battle with this pirate kingdom of intellectual property? American software, its codes cracked by inventive Iranians, is cheaply available in copyright-free Tehran. “I love it when we log on and it says `Welcome!’ And all for free!” says a young computer buff.

Conversely, militant Islamist editor Masood Dehnamaqi says he’d happily organize attacks to block the return of American business. He wants no truck with Americans or their global, ecology-exploiting capitalism — and would fight the majority of Iranians who do. “We want a democracy of the mind, not of sheep-like numbers,” he says at an office decorated with mementos from the front lines of the war against Iraq. Then, smiling, he adds: “Better run along now, before I take you hostage!”

Perhaps he was joking. Perhaps not. Ambiguities and deceptions have always been dear to Iranian hearts, says a respectable professor of literature who wants to be described only as the “wild one of Shiraz.”

“It takes many years to learn the secret,” he says, sitting dervish-like in white cotton leggings, folding and unfolding his ascetic limbs under a thin dark cloak. “And I’m not going to tell you what it is, because then it wouldn’t be a secret anymore.”

The Wall Street Journal


Blood and body-painting at Iran’s 2001 fair to celebrate “sacred defence”

01sep26 musala scuds

Terrorism is a word that is constant trouble — a bit like “Islamism”, it seems to mean something different to everyone. Turkey, for instance, is still tied up in knots trying to work out where it should draw the line between pro-Kurdish violence and political opposition. But the West shoots the word from the hip as well, as I discovered when I wrote this story from Tehran for the Wall Street Journal a fortnight after the 9/11 attacks on America. I struggled for hours to keep the language on target — the Iran-Iraq war was the main subject of this exhibition, after all — but was then blindsided in the headline. Twelve years on, however, Iranians are still struggling to move on from their revolutionary state’s ideology of martyrdom and “sacred defence”.

27 Sept 2001

The Fruits of Terrorism

Are the Stock in Trade

At a Tehran Exhibition

Islamic Holy War Is a Theme

Of the Long-Planned Event;

Martyrs and Suicide Bombers


By Hugh Pope

TEHRAN, Iran — At first glance, the sprawling exhibition here looks like a trade show — with booths, color brochures and free keychains.

"Outpost of the Martyr Seirhani"

“Outpost of the Martyr Seirhani”

But the theme of the First Universal Exhibition of Sacred Culture and Defense is Islamic revolution and holy war. The event glorifies groups condemned by the U.S. and Israel as terrorists.

There is Hezbollah of Lebanon, where Islamists first deployed the suicide car bomb in the early 1980s as part of a successful campaign to drive the U.S., Israeli and French armies out of their country. The group brought along a five-man choir, which sings martial songs to the accompaniment of an electronic keyboard.

“The songs are about Jerusalem and the intifada [Palestinian uprising], about the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, about the leader of the Islamic community, Imam Khomeini,” says a militant in his 20s. He would identify himself only as a songwriter.

Also on hand is the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, at a booth displaying photos of the Iraqi gassing of 5,000 ethnic Kurds in 1988. The Palestinians’ booths are lined with gory pictures of young men who blew themselves up or were killed by Israelis, as recently as a few weeks ago.

“Look at this boy, this beautiful boy,” says Abu Mohammed Mustafa, representative in Tehran of the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas, pointing to the photograph of a smiling young man. In the next picture, the same man burns to death in a car struck by an Israeli missile. “Look, he’s a martyr now,” says Mr. Mustafa.

The long-planned event, which opened Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 2, commemorates the 21st anniversary of the country’s brutal war with Iraq. There is no sign of Osama bin Laden, America’s No. 1 suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Iranian government has long been at odds with Mr. bin Laden and his protectors in Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.

While the scene seems to glorify military strikes and terrorist attacks on civilians, Majid Javanmard, a diplomat at the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s stand at the show, has a different perspective.

“People have different views of terrorism. We condemn it, whether it is in New York, in [the Palestinian refugee camps of] Sabra and Shatila, or Afghanistan. You’ve got to look at the context of each case,” he says.

His booth features a fine pair of Persian carpets. Right opposite is a mock street wall with a sign reading “Martyr Road.” Visitors can look through holes in it to see a battlefield where a green military radio lies abandoned in the ruins of a house that glistens with blood and gore.

Dummy soldiers recreate Iran-Iraq warfront scene in central Tehran, Sept 2001 (Photo: HP)

Dummy soldiers recreate Iran-Iraq warfront scene in central Tehran, Sept 2001 (Photo: HP)

The exhibition was organized by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the military power base of the hard-line stalwarts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Such militants still control the country’s main institutions despite several elections since 1997 that have been overwhelmingly won by a moderate, reformist faction personified by President Mohammed Khatami.

Some mothers in long black chador cloaks bring their children, and drop them off at a camouflage-netted tent for some recreational painting.

Their supervisor, 22-year-old art student Shabnam Yahyazadeh, asks them to create a child’s-eye view of what they had learned from the exhibition. Most of the work drying around the tent is of tanks, battles in palm groves and soldiers dying bloody deaths.

“This is the air force,” says Amir Mohammed, five years old, pointing to a rendering of a warplane. Then, pointing to red streaks over most of the page, he adds: “These ones are dead. They’re gone.”

Body painting, Iranian revolutionary style

Body painting, Iranian revolutionary style

“I’ve been ordered to make them paint these things. But this is just the surface. It’s politics,” says Ms. Yahyazadeh. “The real Islam has no killing. If some people have flipped it upside down for their own benefit, I don’t agree, the majority doesn’t agree.”

For Iranian hard-liners, the convention offers another opportunity to use the war against Iraq to justify their domination of the country. A section entitled “The Memory of Heroic Deeds” features reconstructed scenes from recruiting offices and troop send-offs, loudspeakers playing stories in song about “Our Jihad” and the martial music once broadcast during offensives. There are walk-through dioramas of the reedbeds in the Iraqi border marshes. Also 3-D re-creations of the dikes and bunkers of the front lines, scattered with battered Toyota landcruisers, antiaircraft guns, barbed wire, and depictions of Iran’s 200,000 war dead.

“Those were the good days,” says Abdulreza Baqizadeh, pausing by an artillery piece with his wife shrouded in black. “What I remember was the spiritual atmosphere of those days, the togetherness. We’ve lost so much since then, the value system is changing, the way money is so important, the way women no longer dress properly.”

Mr. Baqizadeh, who was a medic and now works in an automobile paintshop, says he had longed to become a martyr. “I didn’t deserve it, apparently,” he says. “People think of war as bloody, and it was very ugly. But if a casualty was brought to us, we saw his spirit. It was beautiful to see people ready to give their lives for God.” Mr. Baqizadeh was 17 years old when he enlisted.

Nariman Abdi hands out keychains, Web-site addresses and Korans at a “Sacred Defense” booth sponsored by his employer, Bank Melli Iran. He was just 13 when he rushed to the front at the outbreak of the war. Asked if he shouldn’t have been at school, he just smiled and said the war front was the “school of love . . . a lost paradise.”

Around the next corner, an Iranian elementary-school group stands in mesmerized horror before a video monitor showing scenes from a wartime medical tent. A man displays the contents of a sack of amputated body parts: a foot, an arm, lumps of flesh. When some flinch and look away as doctors hack at an open wound that fills the screen, their teacher orders them to keep watching. “We want to inculcate the new generation with the spirit of sacrifice we had then, in an unequal situation,” explains Reza Khorasani, the prayer leader of a Tehran mosque, remembering his own trips to the front with food and morale-raising sermons during the war.

Scud and future scud-shaped minaret

Scud and future scud-shaped minaret

After a hall of more poster-sized, bloody images — the mutilated stump of a leg, the blistered face of one of the 60,000 Iranians poisoned by Iraqi gas — the circuit of the exhibition tour emerges onto a vista that symbolizes militant Islam. The great prayer courtyard of the unfinished gray concrete and brick cathedral of the revolution, where the affair is located, is filled with enough military hardware for an armaments fair.

One of the blue-shirted militants there waves the movement’s yellow flag, which bears the symbol of the Revolutionary Guards, made up of the Arabic word for “No” turning into a hand clenching a rifle and the Koranic motto: “Oppose them until the last of your strength.”

At the Hezbollah stand, the movement’s satellite-TV station broadcasts a speech by the group’s black-turbaned leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, baring his teeth and shaking his fist in militaristic diatribe. Behind it, a poster of Sheik Nasrallah declares that “the success of the [Lebanese] resistance shows that the liberation of Jerusalem is certain.”

Beside that, among pictures of shell-blasted babies and twisted corpses from Israeli attacks on Lebanon, an elaborate piece of Arabic calligraphy spells out “Death to America, Death to Israel.”

Across the convention-style walkway, where visitors wander over a Star of David being stamped on by an oversize, blood-red footprint, stands the toll of Hezbollah martyrs over 25 years: 1,281 dead, registered in six-foot high numerals dripping with red-paint blood.

“Blood is sacred for us. We didn’t have guns, so we gave our lives. It’s what liberated our country,” says Fadi Habbawi, 22, a young Lebanese student of Persian language and literature who is taking his turn to man the Hezbollah stand. “My goal is not to become a martyr. But if I did become one, then I would go straight to paradise.”


27 September 2001

The spring hopes that Syria’s leaders wasted in Hama

Hama waterwheelsWhen I wanted to write about what next to expect in Syria after the funeral in 2000 of the late president Hafez al-Assad, I chose to go to the central city of Hama. As a student, I  had listened to the groaning water wheels here and indulged in plates full of Hama’s cheese-and-honey pudding, which slowly flows down stepped waterfalls of sweetness in shop windows. Later I had also seen the fresh rubble and fearful faces in 1982, shortly after the Syrian government responded to a Muslim brother rebellion by levelling much of the historic centre. I thought the city might be a good sounding board the reality of the “Damascus Spring” that everyone hoped for under the newly installed president, Bashar al-Assad.

Slit arms

Back then, the businessmen of Hama clearly hoped that something good might come of a change of leader. But if there ever was a Damascus Spring, it was soon over. I went back to Syria again to try to write follow-up stories in 2001, 2002 and 2003, criss-crossing Damascus with my reporter’s note book. Real change never materialised. Eventually, my Wall Street Journal editor just said: “Let’s just drop the Syria story, Hugh. It’s not happening. It’s not your fault. Syria hasn’t changed, so we just won’t write a story about it” (see here).

What strikes me re-reading those impressions now is how big a chance Bashar al-Assad and his entourage wasted when they took power. For sure, the businessman of Hama tempered any hopes with their bitter experiences. And there was no mistaking the sentiments of one of the mourners in the Assad family village (right), presaging the disturbing all-or-nothing mentality that is now back and destroying the country. But the Hama community leaders I met had truly been ready to work within the crazy system that was the Syrian economy, and were not asking for huge profits in return. I wonder how long it will now take to get back to the stability and elementary economic openness that Syria will need if it is to have any hope of returning to even this degree of normal life.


Hope Rises at Scene of Syrian Repression

Years After Late President

Crushed a Rebellion,

Hama’s Economy Stirs


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

HAMA, Syria — No Syrian city paid a higher price than Hama for the brutal excesses that punctuated the 30-year rule of late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad.

Yet it is here, rising from a semi-desert lot outside the city, that the gleaming silos and Western production lines of a new factory symbolize Syrian hopes for an era of reform under Bashar al-Assad, his son and heir apparent.

What makes Syria’s newest vegetable oil plant extraordinary in a country of state-dominated economic backwardness is the fact that most of its $30 million, all-equity investment came from 4,000 ordinary citizens of Hama, including doctors, lawyers, spare-parts dealers and bazaar shopkeepers.

“It’s an old-fashioned kind of investment, I know. No Syrian bank would lend us money anyway,” says one of the project’s leaders, Izzat al-Habbal, a 72-year-old who trades in everything from plastics to coffee. “Now we’re asking government ministers to set up a stock market so we can trade our shares. But they still shake their heads and say `it’s too early yet’ ”

The Syrian economy, c. 2000

The Syrian economy, c. 2000

Nothing moves fast in Syria, let alone in Hama, 220 miles north of Damascus in the middle of this Arab country of 17 million people. The town is so conservative that youths from the Christian minority drive 100 miles to the next city for secret meetings with their girlfriends. Many women of the Sunni Moslem majority wear black cloths that cover their entire heads and faces.

It was also here in 1982 that Hafez al-Assad’s regime crushed a murderous Islamic fundamentalist uprising in a month of shelling and street battles. At least 10,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire, after which most of the city center was expropriated and bulldozed. Today, where the vaulted terraces of a medieval palace once stepped down to the Orontes River, a new five-star hotel stands like a fort. Still, nearly two decades after the conflict, big swathes of the center lie flattened, scarred with rubble-strewn hillocks and the bombed-out ruins of once-graceful stone mansions.

“We just want to forget about those events now,” says Nazih Arwani, 63, a short, rotund dealer in car parts and chief executive of the company setting up the new factory, the al-Ahliya Vegetable Oil Co.

The investors in Hama’s vegetable plant started their crusade in 1991, when Hafez al-Assad’s government passed landmark legislation known as Law No. 10 to facilitate private investment. “We got together and asked ourselves, what can we do to help our town? We decided, the first priority is transport,” says Mr. al-Habbal, who also heads the city’s chamber of commerce.

The merchants created one of Syria’s first private companies not dominated by one individual. Al-Ahliya Transport and its new, air-conditioned buses were a runaway success, leaving the tatty state bus stations and their old coaches limping behind. Dividends of 20% a year paid off the initial investment, and stockholders shares have doubled in value.

Dividends, titles and even the new patronage opportunities were only part of the motivation of the old Hama families who led that project and then started planning the vegetable oil plant. Members of the board draw no salary, for instance. There are no stock options, and nobody owns more than 1% of the company. The only non-local involvement is from Dubai-based Arab Authority for Agricultural Development, which has taken a 40% equity stake in the project.

“This is done by people like my father, who have known each other since forever,” says Nabil Maatouk, a 27-year-old member of a local Christian family that imports Volvo-Scania truck parts and bottles a local cola brand for sale all over Syria. “They all have their own businesses in town. They’re at a stage in their lives that they want to do good.”

But Law No. 10 was vague, and doing good quickly ran up against the bad old kind of barrier that hobbles all Syrian private business. After a tax holiday for the first five years of operation, al-Ahliya Transport was suddenly faced with the usual tax of 56% of profits. The company slashed dividends and reinvestment. The merchants of Hama knew better than anyone that, as in much of the Middle East, the tax system is a vicious circle. Rates are high because businessmen hide their profits, and businessmen hide profits because taxes are unfairly high. Taxmen can be bribed, of course, but only up to a point: In Syria, their pay includes a bonus share of taxes collected.

Such chicanery, for once, wasn’t an option. The Hama merchants were now collectively answerable to a wide circle of their fellow citizens. “We went again and again to the [former] prime minister to complain that our joint stock company was different, pure and honest, and that the government should cut our tax bill. Once he had four ministers in the room. They all said `you’re so right’ and promised to look into it,” Mr. Arwani says. “Each time, they would come back to us later and say `sorry, but the law doesn’t allow it.’ ”

Then power shifted in Damascus. In 1994, President al-Assad’s eldest son and flamboyant heir apparent, Basil, died in a car crash. His next son, Bashar, a London-trained eye doctor, stepped up as crown prince. President al-Assad hadn’t visited Hama since the early 1970s, but Bashar paid a first visit to Hama in 1996. He passed by the ugly scars in the town center, where 100-foot-high water wheels that survived the 1982 devastation still turn slowly on their ancient wooden axles, filling the air with a deep and mournful groaning.

“I asked him, give us back our city center. And the very next day, Hafez al-Assad ordered the city hall to draw up a plan to give it back,” Mr. al-Habbal says. “Of course, being bureaucrats, the city hall didn’t do anything for years.

But now we’re talking about the return of 2,300 undeveloped plots in the next few months. It’s a new era. We’re not building up empty hopes.”

The breakthrough came in March this year, when Hafez al-Assad appointed a government with a new prime minister and several new ministers apparently close to Bashar al-Assad. To the delight of the Hama businessmen, the new government cut taxes on profits of the new joint-stock companies to 25%. It also changed legislation to allow tax holidays to be extended for qualified projects like the vegetable oil factory.

Messrs. Arwani, al-Habbal and their fellow pioneers believe things can only get better. A few days before Hafez al-Assad’s death earlier this month, they attended an all-Syria meeting of local chambers of commerce, where a quarter of the new Cabinet came to hear their concerns. They reckon they’ll soon be able to hand the factory over to professional management and move on to their next project to mobilize the untapped, privately held wealth of Hama.

The Wall Street Journal, 19 June 2000.

Champagne and cabbage on board the Baku express

My beautiful picture

When an Azerbaijani co-worker arrived in our Istanbul office, she was pretty surprised by the ragged Internet service offered by Turkey’s high-handed TTNET monopoly, comparing it unfavourably to zippy data speeds in the glossy new Baku. Roles have indeed reversed, reminding me of the days things weren’t so great in the Caucasus. On my first trip to Azerbaijan in 1990, the only way I was told I could communicate with anywhere outside the Soviet Union was by telegram. Theoretically. The one “in Baku am ok stop” message I attempted to send never arrived back home in next-door Turkey.

The story below about one aspect of the traumatic transition to the early chaos of Caucasian independence was experienced just a month after the Soviet collapse. It’s a medley of experiences with my photographer brother Patrick as we criss-crossed the region that really freezing mid-winter. Neither of us spoke any Russian, my Turkish only half-worked with Azeris and we had little idea what we were doing. One day Patrick went out looking something more exciting to do than watch me pointlessly try to make phone calls. He came back with a pair of tickets to somewhere we’d heard events were afoot – Grozny, in Chechnya. We had no idea that were about to go to independent Russia, but back then, nobody raised an eyebrow…


By Hugh Pope

Baku – Icy draughts whistle in through the cracked carriage-work. There are long unexplained stops in the night. Thieves are so rife that conductors tell their passengers to stow even shoes securely under their bunks.

But at crumbling railway stations all over the Caucasus, long-distance trains of the old Soviet railways still creak into action with little regard for who is independent, who is at war and who has signed on to the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The Soviet system may be decaying, but parts survive – and with a lingering pride of purpose. It may have taken up to two hours to struggle for tickets. But of five trains I travelled on in recent weeks, four left precisely on time.

The conductors still shovel the coal into ancient boilers that keep each carriage warm. They hand out sheets, slightly damp and grey, but clean. And at each station passengers with money stock up on supplies, shared with compartments companions with remarkable joie de vivre. “You’re from England? Fantastic. This calls for champagne,” said a collective farm mechanic from Nagorny Karabakh, returning minutes later with “Azerbaijan Champagne”, fruit juice, sausages and  bread.

My beautiful pictureFate chooses one’s fellow-passengers and there is no segregation of the sexes, as we two men found one evening when shunted into the same four-berth second-class compartment as Martha and Khalima, two shop assistants from the would-be independent Chechen Republic. Good Muslim women, they wouldn’t touch our Western food offerings for fear of pork. But with broad smiles they brought out a bottle of vodka to go with the pickled cabbage bought from one of the more unlikely minorities in the Caucasus, the ethnic Koreans of Grozny.

First class “SV” carriages still tag on the end of the 20-cariage, three-day service from Baku to Moscow. But the relative luxury could not match the atmosphere of third-class travel in 54-berth mobile dormitories.

There were Uzbeks, Dagestanis, Slavs, Jews, grandmothers, chicken merchants and drunken soldiers, but all obediently unrolled their bedding on cue from the woman conductor. Ethnic tensions amounted to light-hearted teasing of two Armenian women who got on to a carriage in Georiga but wouldn’t come in because it was full of Azeris. “I love this job. You really see the world,” laughed our conductor, a half-Kurdish Azeri, enforcing the no-smoking rule by shooing out a grandfather who lit a cigarette.

The world may only pass the grimy train windows at a lurching canter, but at least the railways regularly deliver people over long distances for a price that makes the Western visitor feel like a millionaire – 30p for the 15-hour journey from Baku to Tbilisi.

There are few travel alternatives. By some miracle, Aeroflot still works relatively well in the Caucasus, with tickets available for dollars. But there are very few flights and safety standards put one on a wing and a prayer.

Card sharps tried and failed to relieve us of our money on the train, but road travel is far more dangerous in these times when highway bandits are at large.

Vehicles are also becoming unreliable. The vie-president of Azerbaijan’s Intourist agency said he believed half of Baku’s taxis were off the road due to missing parts. Private hire was little better.

My beautiful pictureTaking a small Lada from Tbilisi to western Georgia involved a long detour to buy petrol from a mafia-run collection of tankers. On a mountain road the car shuddered to a halt as impurities clogged up its carburettor. Our friends cursed fluently in Georgian but dismantled it with a well-practiced air, sucking each pinhole clean in a driving blizzard. The miracle of survival continued as we surmounted icy slopes with long run-ups and thanked our lucky bald front tyre for our safe arrival.

Nobody would hire out a vehicle for the journey back. All over the Caucasus, crime rates have doubled. In the absence of most central police authority, car owners remove their windscreen wipers and chain up the steering wheel, lock the pedals and park them in guarded lots if they can.

So it was an Israeli businessman also stranded by the weather who offered us a ride back over the mountains through snow-storms in the one vehicle he had found for hire – an open-top truck already filled with snow. Amazingly, Georgian snowploughs had cleared the road and we made it.

Half-frozen  at the top of the  pass, resting and dreading the next three hours of night travel, a bus parked in the same lay-by suddenly offered the chance of a ride all the way back to Baku with a bus-load of Azeri tourists and suitcase traders. Rarely have I felt so grateful. Friendly hands took off our wet coats. Warm furs were draped over our shoulders. Mugs of cognac were passed.

“You will write that we are not monsters, won’t you,” said Maia, a Baku police captain who had gone all the way to Turkey to buy clothes for her children, but had been robbed at the customs post. “We really hope things get completely back to normal soon.”

The Independent, “Out of the Caucasus”, 8 February 1992