Smoking in Babol (back by popular demand)
I've gotten a lot of people asking for this story so I suppose that a lot of HPers like the 13th Floor Elevators or are interested in Northern Iran so here it is.
Among the many interesting and fun occurrences took place during my recent and lengthy business outing to Babol was the time I spent with an expert on the 13th Floor Elevators who also is a fountain of knowledge on Ghalyoon related lore.
Before I recount my experiences a bit of background info is in order. First, the city of Babol is a major industrial and commercial center in Northern Iran in the province of Mazandaran and is a short drive from the inland Caspian Sea. The Ghalyoon is a variant on the narghile typically used with jurak and tombac rather then moassel which is usually characterized by wooden main and down-stems, the lack of a purge valve, traditional leather hoses and bowls designed for use with either jurak or tombac. The 13th Floor Elevators were a legendary mid/late ‘60s psychedelic band from Austin Texas best know for the counter culture antics of it’s singer Roky Erickson, the minor league hit "you’re Gonna Miss Me" and Tommy Hall’s amplified cider jug.
After spending a couple of days dealing with boring, stressful work related drudgery I was invited to the lovely home of a client whose plant my company manages for a delightful repast of Kateh, caviar (a famous product from the Iranian island of Ashuradeh ), smoked fish, Ash-e Esfenadj, Badenjan Torshi and various breads and cheeses. A pleasant evening of calm banter morphed into an interesting chat on economics over a desert of Bastani-e Akbar-Mashti which was interrupted by an exuberant and extremely rumpled, industrial bureaucrat named Gholam. Gholam’s distinguished features are accented by the‘50s style glasses he wears as well as the world’s most perfectly coiffed mustache and thin silver hair that would have looked even more elegant were he not wearing a an expensive suit badly in need of ironing while running behind schedule and apologizing frantically before sitting down with the rest of the dinner party. After calm returned to the dinning room he quickly produced an extremely large thermos of coffee and proceeded to extol it’s virtues over tea before launching into a lengthy monolog of penguin jokes accompanied by him mimicking how they walk and squawk which had my host and I laughing uproariously while the rest of the dinner party were mortified to the point of paralysis. If I was prone to flights of fancy I’d say that Gholam was the essence of John Cleese trapped in a Persian functionary’s body. On the way out the door I learned that our entertainer was the brother of our host and that I was scheduled to spend a good deal of time with on various work related matters and interestingly enough he was to become my friend.
My first business meeting with Gholam was formal, tedious and moderately productive without a hint of the outrageous flamboyancy I had seen the night before. After the conference he invited me to accompany him to a café to enjoy what he said were the best Ghalyoons in the country so naturally I accepted. The café was interesting in that the patrons ranged from very young to elderly and seemed to come from pretty much all social strata. I got a kick out of the slowly turning, belt driven fans on the ceiling and the pastoral paintings hanging on the wall which contrasted sharply with the decayed plaster and heavily worn but still colourful tiles on the floor.
As we came in a stout and heavily scared man missing a hand and wearing an eye patch waved us over and gave Gholam a cassette tape. The battered fellow behind the counter was the café owner and as is often the case expressed disbelief that I knew how to smoke anything other then cigarettes and suggested that I smoke Fars Moassal Tobacci which is a fruity Gulf style product rather then the locally produced "Joy of Babol" which I was told is "too strong for foreigners". Luckily, I was able to try it anyway after a bit of coaxing. When we sat down the patrons looked on with quizzical expressions as I opened up a brief case and took out an Al Fakher healthy hose leading Gholam to inquiry what it was for. When I told him he snickered and another patron apparently said something about how I should stop looking under the bonnet of my car for something to smoke with. The owner told me that "if it’s worthy of being put on a Ghalyoon it’s leather, not plastic" and gave me a hose that was wider, longer and heavier then anything I’ve laid eyes on before which I examined carefully as our table was finished being prepared. It was latter explained to me that leather hoses absorb nicotine and accentuate the flavours of the jurak in much the same way that oak mellows wine. My session was spent smoking the "Joy of Babol" which is a local jurak made with fire cured tobacco blended with a little bergamot oil, mint and cinnamon making for a delightful riot of flavours and dense texture which went well with the creamy, sweet flavours of the Aab Hendevaneh I was drinking.
On the way back to my hotel Gholam popped in the tape he picked up earlier that evening which I was surprised to hear held the wild hooting of Roky Erickson singing "Well, here I am on monkey island Hiding behind a rock I´m all dressed up with my monkey suit Pretending to be something I´m not". Asking Gholam about it he mentioned that he was huge 13th Floor Elevators fan and that the song Monkey Island described perfectly how hiding one’s true self is a defining aspect of life. Tapping his fingers rhythmically on the steering wheel he said "the concession we make in wearing uncomfortable clothes and demanding that everyone else dress and act as we do is the same thing as Roky referring to his paisley tie and one button suit. We all are prisoners to conformity."
The next day Gholam invited me over to his house for dinner with him and his children and I agreed provided I could make dinner for everyone else and return a bit of the hospitality shown to me. Luckily he agreed and as we entered his spacious, modern flat my attention was drawn to a large poster showing Stacy Sutherland blowing a cloud of smoke from a Ghalyoon on too the Elevators’ drum kit. Noticing my study of the poster Gholam said "Looks like my favorite band loves the Ghalyoon as much we do. I wonder what they liked to smoke?" I couldn’t quite bring myself to tell him that what the Elevators smoked wasn’t anything we’d want to be associated with.
That evening was spent sharing a meal of BBQ chicken (I packed it dry ice and brought it with me on the company jet in a cooler), okra, coleslaw & colargreens which luckily everyone seemed to enjoy. To me the high point of the meal was the animated conversation with his twin daughters Farah & Zhila who seemed quite perceptive and eloquent. "My daughters" Gholam said "bring to mind the lyric ‘She lives, no fear Doubtless in everything she knows Through time unchecked, The sureness of her flows.’ " Prompting me to say, "you really are an Elevators fan which is cool but I’d have expected that Din Attar would be your speed" which resulted in him explaining that "well, he’s brilliant of course but I’ve just found that the Elevators seem to speak to more parts of my life then even Attar, besides music adds so much to life". Apparently Gholam’s daughters are the spitting image of his deceased wife whose heart he won with a love note that had the lyrics to Splash written in them. I suppose they are even more moving in Farsi so you would be Romeos take note!
A couple of days latter we drove out to the Caspian spend the afternoon fishing and it struck me that I’ve never gone fishing without a pint of mild ale in cooler before. Well, when in Rome and all sort of thing is usually the best way to go.
Upon arriving at the dock we stopped to look out at the beautiful horizon stretching out before us. I commented that such a sight would have been great to share with my deceased family to which Gholam replied "yes, well I’ve felt that way at times but the song ‘Til Then’ helps me get past it" Recalling that old tune as the smell of the water hit me I thought -
"brings Sadness From The Heart
and The Madness Soon Departs
until We've Found A Way
as What It Takes To Say
when Each Man Lends His Voice
and Grabs His Only Choice
this Is Where The Laughter Plays,
so To Lift Your Happy Ways,
as The Echo Builds And Swirls,
and You Know The Carpet Fills,
and Everyone Will Fly Through Space,
and So Joins The Human Race"
I laughed out loud getting a puzzled look from others on the dock and thought "yeah, I suppose that makes sense."
After heading out to sea we fired up some excellent saffron flavoured Al-Shamim using some gorgeous Koyilandy style huqqas brought along for the trip. For those that aren’t familiar with Koyilandy huqqas they are very elaborate rigs made in India out of brass, silver and copper with a base made from a coconut shell that real are a works of art that provide a great session as well as delight the eye.
Watching the tendrils of white-grey smoke curl towards heaven, hearing the sizzle of the coals, feeling the swaying motion of the waves I felt my mind drifting and suddenly had it yanked back to earth with the exited shouts of
"Two Backs, together Make One Human
freedom Palace Bares Our Souls,
and Makes Us All The New One
from Oasis You Can Need Me
it Just Summons Me To Wear
if I Face It That Would Leave Me,
where Your Shore Is Just Out There"
It was then that we narrowly avoided the coast of Ashuradeh Isle with a violent, last second maneuver and I thought what a curious yet salubrious vacation from normal life I was having and wondered why it was so.
I’ve heard it said that some people think I have crazy, surreal experiences in exotic places normal people don’t go to. What a ridiculous notion. I mean it’s not like I’ve gone Turkmenistan and hung out with a fan of Billy Gibbon’s Moving Sidewalks while smoking some strange moassel no one ever hear of. So perhaps my life is not as odd some see it after all.